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Perfect Times Six

by Dave Gourdoux

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man"
Over the course of the past 120 years or so, as it's grown to a full and complex and truly global art form, film has provided us with many classics, from iconic epics to quiet and personal statements. It remains the most collaborative of all art forms in that even the movies that are intensely personal statements from a director require contributions from cinematographers, writers, actors, art designers, composers and musicians, and even financiers to make sure there is enough money to pay for them all.

This is probably the main reason that almost all movies, even the masterpieces, are flawed. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, for example, has moments where the narrative drags. John Ford’s psychological western The Searchers, a character study of a nearly psychotic racist that is darker than anything he ever made before, is nearly destroyed by Ford's attempts at comic relief, using the same brawling men and fawning women formula that became tired twenty years earlier. Blake Edwards’ 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s features an enchanting Audrey Hepburn and a memorable romantic Henry Mancini score. Its treatment of sex is, compared to other films of the production code era, more mature than other films of its time. The film is almost ruined, however, by the overly broad and racist performance of Mr. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney. 

Some films are fascinating because of their flaws. Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 horror film Freaks uses professional circus sideshow attractions as amateur actors and walks the thin line between exploitation and art. The result is an almost documentary look and feel that heightens the horror movie plot and makes watching an even more uncomfortable experience. 

Take any Stanley Kubrick film made after Doctor Strangelove and you can see his self-indulgences and pretentiousness grow. Yet Kubrick was such a genius that his flaws were more interesting than almost anyone else’s best traits. All of the films he made between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket are filled with hubris and self-importance, yet they are all more interesting than almost any others, including most of his own earlier films, where he earned his reputation.

So thinking about this, of all the elements that have to come together to make a good film, and that so many classic films are flawed in one or more significant way, I asked myself, has a perfect movie ever been made?

The answer in my humble opinion, is yes, there have been at least six “perfect” movies. They are:

6:   Duck Soup, 1933, directed by Leo McCarey, starring the Marx Brothers.

One of the most important components of any perfect film has to be the pace of the narrative. This is especially true in comedy. From the opening scene, where Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly is introduced (by his great foil, Margaret Dumont) as the new head of the state of Freedonia, through to the brothers engaging in the silliest war scenes ever filmed, Duck Soup establishes and maintains a frenetic and consistently high level of humor and never stops, never pauses. Even the musical numbers, normally where you stop and catch your breath in a Marx Brothers film, are funny. Duck Soup is the perfect comedy because it is the happy marriage of the brothers at the peak of their skills with McCarey, the best director they ever worked with. McCarey, who had made many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent films, injected his skill for physical comedy as well as his considerable cinematic talents into the mix. Where films like Animal Crackers and Monkey Business were essentially filmed stage productions, Duck Soup could only exist on film, as McCarey used the camera and the editing room to tremendous comedic effect. That the film is also a brilliant satire on political leadership and nation / states is secondary.  It's the one film I've seen more than any other, and it still makes me laugh out loud, and each time I see it, I find something new that I hadn't appreciated before. This is another element of the perfect film - it not only stands up to repeated viewings, it gets better each time.

5:  The Maltese Falcon. 1941, directed by John Huston, adapted by Huston from the Dashiell Hammett novel, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.

One of the most important elements of perfect films has to be the writing. While in Duck Soup, we will never know how much of the movie was in the original screenplay and how much was improvised by the brothers and McCarey on the set, the other films on this little list (with the exception of one) all had brilliant screenplays that revealed memorable and complex characters and a compelling narrative. This is the foundation on which The Maltese Falcon is built.  John Huston, already a veteran screen writer, adapted the Dashiell Hammett novel and made his directorial debut. His direction is as brilliant as his script, as we witness the film noir genre being born right before our eyes. The cast is amazing. Sam Spade becomes the archetypal Bogart role, cynical and tough, with enough flaws (at times, like when he terrorizes the young gunman Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook, he's downright sadistic) that you're never really sure of where his allegiances fall. On screen virtually every minute of the film, only Bogart had the skill and the persona and the stature to pull off such a complex and iconic role. He's tough and worldly, but he also has a vulnerability that fleshes Spade out as a three dimensional character. There's also Sydney Greenstreet as Guttman and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, a pair of odd and creepy characters who'll stop at nothing to get the bird. All the performances are top notch, but it's Mary Astor as the greatest femme fatale ever who gives one of the greatest and most underrated performances of all time. Watch the expressions on her face change from disbelief to devastation during Bogart's soliloquy in the climactic scene. Huston's script and direction are perfect, but without the perfect cast, there's no way we'd still be talking about this movie 75 years after it was made.

4: Casablanca, 1943, directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by  Jules and Phillip Epstein…., starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, and Claude Raines

Although it's a little bit murky now who actually wrote the screenplay for Casablanca (The Epstein twins, Jules and Phillip, were assigned to the project twice, Howard Koch is also credited, but there is some question as to whether any of the thirty to forty pages he produced were actually used in the film, while the uncredited Casey Robinson was responsible for several key re-writes), there's no questioning the greatness of the script that gave us some of the most iconic quotes of all time, from "Here's looking at you, Kid" to "Round up the usual suspects" to "Play it, Sam" to "We'll always have Paris." Besides the memorable one-liners, the script is lean and efficient. The direction by Michael Curtiz serves the screenplay perfectly. Curtiz handles all of the moving parts of the script with aplomb, from character revealing little asides to the flashback scenes that are so important. It's vital that we see how much in love Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Illsa (Ingrid Bergman at her most beautiful) are in Paris. It has to be a love of epic proportions to drive the climactic scene at the airport. Thanks to the way Curtiz presents the flashback, and thanks to the charismatic performances of Bogart and Bergman, Casablanca remains probably the greatest love story ever made.

3: Shoot the Piano Player, 1960, directed by Francois Truffaut, adaptation of the David Goodis novel Down There by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy, starring Charles Aznouvar, Mari Dubois, and Nicole Berger.

Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut's second feature, was shot on a shoestring budget and is so loose and free that watching it you get the idea he was making up much of it as he went, and you're left wondering was he trying to make a crime story or a love story or a slapstick comedy or a philosophical meditation on art and life, until you realize that it's all of the above and more, an explosion of genres that only a young director would even attempt to try. That Truffaut succeeds so brilliantly in only 81 minutes of film is testimony to the prodigious talent and genius of the man. Unlike The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, Shoot the Piano Player feels looser and less structured, but that is misleading. Like Casablanca, there is a vital flashback sequence that explains so much about the main character. Truffaut handles the transition in and out of the past brilliantly, and all of the other cinematic rabbits he pulls out of his hat, from corny burlesque singers in a Parisian cafe to silly little sight gags to shootouts in the snow, work spectacularly well. Shoot the Piano Player is the rare tribute to filmmaking that mashes up so many different elements into a coherent and profound statement that stands on its own as a true work of art. It's the perfect realization of Truffaut's unique vision that makes this his most perfect film.

2.  Chinatown, 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, screenplay by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.

Chinatown is directly linked to The Maltese Falcon by John Huston, the writer and director of the 1941 classic and the actor playing the memorably evil Noah Cross in Chinatown. But there's much more linking the two films. First, there's the brilliant performance by Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes. Nicholson is probably the only actor who could not only pull off a part that was clearly inspired by the great Humphrey Bogart, but make the character his own, adding shading and depth to the archetype and avoiding a mere impersonation. In Nicholson's hands, Gettis becomes a vulnerable cynic. He's wise enough to know the rules of the street, that concepts like justice and redemption are illusory, yet he can't help but try to believe in something, and when it falls apart, the pain is almost unbearable. Then there's the femme fatale played by the indescribably beautiful Faye Dunaway, who adds a new twist of melancholia to the part, enhancing the mystery and intrigue. There's Robert Towne's screenplay, which is often held up as the finest screenplay ever written. Only after repeated viewings do you realize that Towne and the director, Roman Polanski, don't waste even a second of screen time - everything is used to reveal character or advance the plot. And what a plot - as complex as any of the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet stories filmed in the 1940s, but without any of the excess that so often got in the way of even great detective movies like The Big Sleep.

1. The Third Man, 1949, directed by Carol Reed, adapted by Graham Greene from his own novella starring Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli.

The ultimate mark of a perfect film is that every time you see it, you find something new, while the parts that thrilled you the first time, that captured your imagination, hold up so well that you experience the same thrills again.  I've become convinced that The Third Man is the most perfect film ever made, and whenever I see it, it climbs higher and higher on my list of the all time greatest films.

First, the screenplay. Written by Graham Greene while simultaneously writing a novella of the same name, The Third Man is the ultimate "fish out of water" story.  It's about a writer of dime westerns, Holly Martins (played brilliantly with wide eyes and a slow voice by Joseph Cotten.) who travels to post-war Vienna to look up an old friend, the appropriately named Harry Lime. A true innocent abroad, he's not prepared for what he sees: the bombed out rubble of much of the city and the dark and mysterious characters he encounters on the way to learning that his old friend is dead. By the time he stumbles upon the truth, that his friend is alive, he's also fallen in love with Lime's girlfriend, and he's learned that Lime has become, like the rotten fruit his name implies, corrupt and evil, trading in watered down penicillin on the black market.

Greene's screenplay is tight and nuanced, and he takes his time letting the story unfold, filling us with information that we learn later is important. He draws the character of Martins just right, as he bumbles his way through the landscape, almost accidentally solving the mystery. When he finally encounters Lime (in a great supporting performance by Orson Welles), he seems to be both physically and intellectually overmatched. This isn't one of those movies where the part of the writer is portrayed as a romantic and adventuresome hero; Martins is instead a reluctant protagonist.

Greene and the director, Carol Reed, also know what every maker of great monster movies know: hold off on showing the monster as long as possible.  The monster in this case is Welles as Lime, and we don't see him until after an hour into the film. Even then, Welles is onscreen for only about twenty mines, but his specter dominates the entire film.

The Third Man also gives us a glimpse into a world largely ignored in films of the time: the devastated after math of World War Two, and the destruction and corruption that dominated the European landscape. Martins is shocked when he learns what Lime is capable of, and there is the famous scene where the two old friends finally meet, on a Ferris wheel high up above an amusement park, where Lime asks if Martins would really lose any sleep if one of those dots below stopped moving? The movie reaches its climax with a famous chase scene through the sewers of Vienna that's as suspenseful as anything in any of today's action movies.

Visually, the film is stunning, thanks to Reed's vision and the great black and white film noir photography of the cinematographer Robert Krasker. Obviously influenced by Welles' films, Reed makes great use of tilted camera angles, and his use of contrast, of shadows and light, is simply exquisite and takes film noir to higher places than ever before or since. Reed distorts angles and corners in a way that is reminiscent of great German expressionist silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. His insistence on shooting on location in the post war ruins of Vienna make the locale itself another vital and vibrant character in the story, and now, nearly seventy years later, serves as an important historical document of the enormous damage inflicted by the war on the European landscape.

The soundtrack to The Third Man is one of the most memorable and distinctive in film history. It was composed by Anton Karas, who Reed met by coincidence at a party in Vienna, where Karas was playing a zither (a stringed instrument that appears to me to be a cross between a guitar and an auto-harp). Reed had already decided he wanted a more intimate score than the usual orchestral accompaniment. Hearing Karas play at the party struck him as the perfect sound for the film, and he decided then and there to hire Karas to compose and perform the entire soundtrack, even inviting Karas back to London to live in Reed's home while finishing his work. It's such a unique and distinctive sound that hearing even a tiny bit of it instantly conjures up images from the film. The only similarity I can draw to "modern" films is the Neil Young soundtrack to the 1995 Jim Jarmusch film, Dead Man.

As great as the screenplay and the acting and the setting and the cinematography and the music are, it's Reed who pulls it all together into a cohesive and coherent product that realizes the vision he had in his head. Which pulls us back to what makes a film perfect: it's the contributions of many toward the realization of an individual's vision. And at the end of the day, isn't that what all great works of art are? The sharing of a vision? Filmmakers like Huston, Polanski, Truffaut, and Reed are among the greatest artists to work in such a bizarre and complex medium. They are sculptors of motion, and their clay is the talent and human flesh and blood of actors and writers and artists.

Anyone who loves movies needs to see The Third Man. Those younger readers who love movies but maybe haven't seen too many of the black and white "oldies" - this is the one to start with. Never boring or slow, with almost every frame an exquisite work of visual art, and with enough movement to satisfy even today's action movie junkies, The Third Man is the perfect place to start or nurture or reignite a love affair with film.