Joseph Cotten finds himself caught up in a dark thriller in this next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book for my viewing of The Big Sleep.
Cotten plays Western novelist Holly Martins, who arrives in post-war Austria to see his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Unfortunately after his arrival, he learns that Harry has been killed, everyone has ruled it an accident, but the more Martins looks into it, the more he thinks his friend was murdered.
It seems there are conflicting reports about how the body was found, the official report says it was by two men, but another man, who ends up murdered (something everyone seems eager to pin on Martins), confides in Martins that there was a third man helping with the body.
Martins teams up with Lime’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and as he begins to fall for her, he learns the dark truth about Harry. He’s an opportunist, and has been stealing and diluting penicillin to resell it on the black market.
The multitude of nationalities on hand in Austria are all eager to learn the truth about what is going on, or are they? When Martins comes across proof that Harry may still be alive, Holly, after a bitter confrontation, asks what his friend’s life is worth to those who are hunting him.
The main unit that is looking for him, is the British outpost, overseen by Calloway (Trevor Howard), who has little patience for Martins. His right hand man is portrayed by none other than 007’s boss, M, Bernard Lee.
If Welles name hadn’t been right at the front of the piece, thereby signaling the viewer that he’s going to appear sooner or later, and had in fact kept it a secret, then the reveal would have been a bit more stunning. Nonetheless, the scenes between Cotten and Welles are my favorites in the film, and they have a feeling of friendship edged with increasing tension, mistrust and bitterness.
The tension of the film is wonderfully counterpointed by a score that features a zither playing in an almost jovial manner as chases are run, and Martins reels from revelation to trouble and back again.
In the end, Martins makes a terrible decision, motivated by the truth about his friend, and his own growing desire for Anna. But we’re left, as the film ends, wondering exactly how everything will turn out for those involved, but not before a spectacular night-time chase through the sewers!
Despite Welles’ almost villainous turn in the film, it’s rather difficult not to like him, there’s something undeniably charismatic about his character, and thanks to a script by Graham Greene (with some unaccredited assistance by Welles) he has some of the best dialogue in the film.
A brilliant example of a noir film, from outside the U.S., a masterful UK picture!
What did you think of it?