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Reed, Carol (1906-1976)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Reed, Carol (1906-1976)

Carol Reed was born in Putney, south London, on 30 December 1906, one of six children of the actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his mistress, Beatrice Mae Pinney. Tree, who was respectably married, supported his second household substantially. Reed grew up in solid middle-class comfort, and was sent to a traditional public school, King's School, Canterbury, which he loathed. He planned to follow his father and become an actor, but in 1922 his mother, hoping to deflect this ambition, sent him to Massachusetts to join his elder brother on a chicken farm. Having neither taste nor aptitude for farming, Reed was back in England within six months. His mother gave way, and he joined a company headed by Dame Sybil Thorndike, making his stage debut in 1924.

Edgar Wallace, the alarmingly prolific thriller writer, had formed a troupe to put on stage adaptations of his novels. Reed joined him and appeared in three Wallace productions, doubling as assistant stage manager. When Wallace accepted the chairmanship of the newly formed British Lion Film Corporation in 1927, Reed became his personal assistant, helping to supervise filmed adaptations of Wallace's thrillers during the day while still acting and stage managing in the evenings. This hectic double life continued until Wallace died of pneumonia in 1932. Abandoning the stage for good, Reed moved to Ealing Studios as dialogue director for Associated Talking Pictures, then being run by Basil Dean.

At Ealing Reed swiftly worked his way up from dialogue director to assistant director. His first experience of directing was on It Happened in Paris (1935), a comedy directed by Robert Wyler (William Wyler's elder brother) to which Reed contributed additional footage. The following year he directed his first solo film, Midshipman Easy, adapted from Captain Marryat's Victorian adventure novel. Graham Greene, writing in The Spectator, felt that Reed showed "more sense of the cinema than most veteran British directors". Greene was even more taken by Reed's next film, Laburnum Grove (1936), adapted from a stage comedy by J.B. Priestley. "Here at last is an English film one can unreservedly praise," he wrote with an almost audible sigh of relief; both films, he went on, were "thoroughly workmanlike and unpretentious, with just the hint of a personal manner which makes one believe that Mr Reed, when he gets the right script, will prove far more than efficient".

The right script took a while to arrive. Reed's next half-dozen pictures were an assortment of second-features, mostly compromised by the jaunty parochialism that beset so many British films of the period. The use of location shooting - uncommon at this time in British cinema - lends Bank Holiday (1938) a touch of documentary realism, but the portrayal of its working-class characters now looks stilted and patronising. The most individual film of this batch, in its bizarre way, is Climbing High (1939), a screwball comedy starring Jessie Matthews and Michael Redgrave, but Reed's unhappiness with this kind of fluffy material is palpable.

The documentary influence, fitfully evident in Bank Holiday, makes itself felt to more purpose in Reed's first major film, The Stars Look Down (1939). Adapted from a novel by the popular middlebrow author A.J. Cronin, the film charts the rise of an ambitious, idealistic young man (Michael Redgrave), a miner's son, to a seat in Parliament, diluting its political message - urging public ownership of the mines - with a novelettish romantic subplot. But there's a grim authenticity to the pithead scenes, notably a mining disaster that invites comparison with G.W.Pabst's Kameradschaft (Germany/France, 1931). By contrast, Reed's next film openly emulates Hitchcock. Night Train to Munich (1940), a comedy-thriller with Rex Harrison enjoying himself as a British agent impersonating a Nazi officer, might be seen as an unofficial sequel to The Lady Vanishes - the same screenwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same train-bound high-jinks, and, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprising their cricket-mad buffoons Charters and Caldicott, even two of the same characters. But given its acknowledgement of Nazi horrors - the systematic extermination of Czech intellectuals, the glimpses into concentration camp life - Night Train's comic elements inevitably seem less amusing.

With The Stars Look Down and Night Train to Munich well received in both Britain and America, Reed's second-feature years were behind him. But though he could now command better material, he seemed to be uncertain about what kind of film suited him best. The Girl in the News (1941) is a routine thriller; Kipps (1941), adapted from H.G. Wells' semi-autobiographical novel, with Michael Redgrave uneasy in the title role, feels stiff and old-fashioned; while The Young Mr. Pitt (1942), a propaganda piece masquerading as a biopic (Napoleon = Hitler, Pitt = Churchill), proved that costume drama was not Reed's forte. Still, his technical skill was by now evident, as was his sympathetic handling of actors. Redgrave recalled him as "the gentlest of directors... able, with infinite pains and care, to bestow on his actors the feeling that everything was up to them and that all he was doing was to make sure that they were seen to their best advantage."

Reed's next assignment, The New Lot (1943), was a forty-two minute dramatised documentary commissioned by the Army Kinematograph Service to show civilians joining up what they could expect from life in the Army: the film demonstrates how new recruits from various social backgrounds become moulded into a cohesive fighting unit. Reed's handling of the subject was so well received that the authorities asked him to expand it to fit a full-length feature for public showing. The result was The Way Ahead (1944). Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov's script explores the confusion, bewilderment and resentment experienced by many conscripts, and Reed captures the sparse discomfort of service life. The stress on tradition and hierarchy recalls Noël Coward and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1943); but with David Niven as an up-from-the-ranks officer and William Hartnell as the Sergeant-Major whose bark is worse than his bite, this is very much an everyman's army where ordinary men can become modest heroes.

From the documentary-tinged The Way Ahead Reed moved on to The True Glory (1945), a compilation of combat footage shot by dozens of Allied cameramen, tracing the last year of the war in Europe from the D-Day invasion to the fall of Berlin. Since this was an Anglo-American venture, Reed was teamed as co-director and deviser with the American film-maker Garson Kanin. Though saddled with a stilted, would-be poetic voice-over commentary, the film tells its story with power and lucidity, and is most eloquent when the combatants and civilians involved are allowed to speak for themselves. Hailed in America as one of the finest cinematic accounts of the war, The True Glory received an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1946.

Now considered the foremost British director, able to choose any subject he liked, Reed was lucky enough to hit on three good scripts in succession. Odd Man Out (1947), adapted from a novel by the Ulster Protestant writer F.L. Green, is Reed's first truly personal film and has 'major work of art' written all over it, maybe a touch too plainly (the influence of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert's pre-war poetic realism, and the contemporaneous American noir cycle, is obvious). But Reed's sense of place - he preferred to shoot on location whenever possible - and his openness to his actors prevent the film being merely an academic exercise in style. James Mason brings an impressive sensitivity to his portrayal of Johnny McQueen, the wounded IRA man on the run in a snowy, nocturnal Belfast, struggling towards his personal Calvary through the gathering shadows of Robert Krasker's moody cinematography. Reed and his screenwriter R.C. Sherriff, co-scripting with Green, erased the novel's Protestant bias; Reed was no political film-maker, and the film takes no sides.

Odd Man Out was made for the Rank Organisation, but with the creative climate at Rank hardening Reed moved over to Alexander Korda's London Films. And it was Korda, with his flair for such linkages, who teamed Reed with the writer who had spotted his talent a decade earlier, Graham Greene. Reed, Greene later wrote, was "the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy, the extraordinary feeling for the right face in the right part, the exactitude of cutting, and not least important the power of sympathising with an author's worries and an ability to guide him".

Their first film together, The Fallen Idol (1948), was adapted from Greene's short story 'The Basement Room', in which a lonely, sensitive boy in London, son of an ambassador, becomes devoted to the embassy's butler and unwittingly betrays him to the police. Under Reed's direction the eight-year-old Bobby Henrey, making his screen debut, gives a performance of exceptional subtlety and emotional impact, while the use of wide-angle lenses heightens the chilly, formal spaces of the embassy that enclose him. But, accomplished and deftly controlled as it is, The Fallen Idol feels like a chamber piece beside the two baroque, expressionistic works made on either side.

The film that followed, The Third Man (1949), is widely reckoned his masterpiece. If Reed's limitation as a director was that he was only ever as good as his collaborators, here he benefited from the best. Apart from Greene and Orson Welles (onscreen for barely fifteen minutes as Harry Lime, yet dominating the whole film with his unseen presence), there was Krasker again with his skewed, tilted framings and melodramatic lighting, and the wheedling, insinuating zither score of Anton Karas; and, far from least, the shattered occupied city of Vienna, its professional charm turned sour and corrupt, visibly embodying the intolerable burden of post-war guilt. In The Third Man Reed's feeling for location and his flair for casting and direction of actors reach their apogee; every role, down to the smallest, is impeccably cast, and the film's disenchanted, haunted romanticism still exerts considerable power.

The Third Man scored a huge international success, and in some quarters Reed was now being touted as the world's greatest living director (though never by Reed himself, a modest and self-effacing man). But from this highpoint his career went into abrupt decline. Outcast of the Islands (1952), adapted from a novel by Joseph Conrad, should in theory have provided ideal material, with its powerful sense of place and its theme of a proudly self-sufficient outsider who contrives his own doom. But the film is seriously weakened by its script, and neither plot nor characters ever come fully into focus. Poor scripting also affected The Man Between (1953), a cold-war thriller set in Berlin with James Mason playing a charming Harry Lime-style crook; inevitably, it felt like a tired retread of The Third Man.

Even more disappointing were Reed's first two ventures into colour. A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) is indigestible whimsy with a sentimentalised East End setting. Trapeze (US, 1956), despite its widescreen circus thrills, is a stodgy love triangle wasting the teaming of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis that would prove so rivetingly lethal a year later in Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (US, 1957). The Key (1958), a long black-and-white Second World War film that explores the morbid connections between romance, superstition and death, was more ambitious, but it is let down by the ponderous improbabilities of Carl Foreman's script.

Our Man in Havana (1960), based on Greene's novel about a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Cuba struggling to pass himself off as a British spy, marked something of a return to form. The film revealed a lighter, more sardonic side to both men's work; shrewd use was made of Alec Guinness (the salesman) and Noël Coward (his spy chief), while American comic Ernie Kovacs enjoyed the finest role of his brief film career as the local police chief. Reed next took on the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (US, 1962) but proved unable to cope with Marlon Brando's ego and resigned from the film, handing over to Lewis Milestone. After The Running Man (1963), a drably routine thriller, and the commercial disaster of the Michelangelo epic The Agony and the Ecstasy (US, 1965), Reed seemed to have hit rock bottom barely fifteen years after his greatest triumph. But he had one final unexpected success to come: his first and only musical. Oliver! (1968), adapted from Oliver Twist with music by Lionel Bart, considerably softened the brutalities of Dickens' novel, but got by on the brio of its song-and-dance numbers and a fair helping of Dickensian gusto. The film picked up a stack of Academy Awards, including Reed's only Oscar as Best Director.

Given this revival in his fortunes, Reed should have been able to round off his career with some worthwhile assignments, but his judgement seemed to have deserted him. He directed only two more films, The Last Warrior (US, 1970) and Follow Me (1971), both of them miscast and leadenly scripted. They received minimal distribution and passed almost unnoticed.

Michael Powell observed of Reed that "Carol could put a film together like a watchmaker puts together a watch". The watchmaker in him is visible in his early films, the films of a complete professional able to make something presentable out of virtually any kind of material, though rarely imposing any personal signature. Then, three times in rapid succession, he directed films that seemed to reveal something deeper and darker in his personality - a fatalism, a sense of the tragic ironies of life. After Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man he appeared to lose his professional assurance, as if this moment of self-revelation had disturbed his equilibrium. Most of the later films are a sad disappointment. But for that brief time in the late 1940s Carol Reed was perhaps what some earlier critics had claimed him to be: the greatest director in the world.

Davies, Brenda (ed.), Carol Reed (London: British Film Institute, 1978)
Drazin, Charles, The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (London: André Deutsch, 1998)
Drazin Charles, In Search of the Third Man (London: Limelight Editions, 2000)
Greene, Graham, The Graham Greene Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark (ed. David Parkinson) (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993)
Greene, Graham and Reed, Carol, The Third Man: a Film (London: Lorrimer, 1984)
Moss, Robert F, The Films of Carol Reed (London: Macmillan, 1987)
Thomson, David, 'Reeds and Trees', Film Comment, July/August 1994, pp. 14-23
Voigt, Michael, 'Pictures of Innocence', Focus on Film, Spring 1974, pp. 17-38
Wapshott, Nicholas, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990)
White Rob, The Third Man (London: BFI Publishing, 2003)
Vaughan, Dai, Odd Man Out (London: BFI Publishing, 1994)

Philip Kemp, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bank Holiday (1938)Bank Holiday (1938)

Lively comedy-melodrama about an eventful August bank holiday

Thumbnail image of Fallen Idol, The (1948)Fallen Idol, The (1948)

Classic child's eye story from Carol Reed and Graham Greene

Thumbnail image of Kid for Two Farthings, A (1955)Kid for Two Farthings, A (1955)

Whimsical fable set in London's Jewish East End

Thumbnail image of Laburnum Grove (1936)Laburnum Grove (1936)

Engaging early Carol Reed comedy about a suburban forger

Thumbnail image of Man Between, The (1953)Man Between, The (1953)

Underrated late Carol Reed film, similar in theme to The Third Man

Thumbnail image of New Lot, The (1943)New Lot, The (1943)

Propaganda short that became the model for The Way Ahead

Thumbnail image of Odd Man Out (1947)Odd Man Out (1947)

A wounded Republican gunman dodges police on Belfast's streets

Thumbnail image of Oliver! (1968)Oliver! (1968)

Lionel Bart's Oscar-winning musical adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist

Thumbnail image of Our Man in Havana (1959)Our Man in Havana (1959)

Alec Guinness is out of his depth in pre-revolution Cuba

Thumbnail image of Outcast of the Islands (1951)Outcast of the Islands (1951)

Underrated Joseph Conrad adaptation directed by Carol Reed

Thumbnail image of Stars Look Down, The (1939)Stars Look Down, The (1939)

Breakthrough film for Carol Reed, a progressive pit community drama

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

Thumbnail image of Way Ahead, The (1944)Way Ahead, The (1944)

Inspiring propaganda film following the making of an Army unit

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Thumbnail image of Krasker, Robert (1913-1981)Krasker, Robert (1913-1981)