Carol Reed

Peter William Evans,
Carol Reed.
Manchester University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 7190 6367 1
224 pp
£14.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

Carol Reed may be the best director in English-language cinema whose body of work is not widely known. Everyone has seen The Third Man (UK, 1949) his greatest work. Odd Man Out (UK, 1947) is reasonably well known. A lot of people – many of them perhaps a very different kind of people – have seen Oliver! (UK, 1968) but how many know who directed it? And some truly fine films, ones that work both as entertainment and as art, are either hard to find or hard to find out about, or both: Our Man in Havana (UK, 1959), Night Train to Munich (UK, 1940), The Fallen Idol (UK, 1948), Climbing High (UK, 1938), A Kid for Two Farthings (UK, 1955) The Stars Look Down (UK, 1940) to name some of the best.

Although not addressing this issue directly, Peter William Evans’s Carol Reed supplies a possible reason for Reed’s undeserved obscurity: scholars and buffs haven’t noticed the commonalities of form and content in Reed’s work. To right this error, Evans searches for common threads linking Reed’s astonishingly diverse output. Hesitantly, Evans ultimately suggests that Reed ought to be included in the ranks of the auteurs, directors whose best work clearly bears their personal stamp.

Evans is indisputably correct in judging Reed to be a director of the first rank, but his argument that Reed should be accorded the status of auteur stretches the notion of auteur, and it may, unintentionally of course, undermine Reed’s stature. Evans notes that Reed’s films often employ canted angles and have urban settings or deal in alienation. But a recurring technique and favored theme do not by themselves an auteur make. Directors share a common pool of techniques and themes from which to draw; what distinguishes auteurs is the personally distinctive, recognizable way in which they use the one to explore the other. Parallel action is a prominent structural device in The Best Years of our Lives (USA, 1946) Touch of Evil (USA, 1958) and Rear Window (USA, 1954) and each of these films could be said to deal in alienation of one kind or another. But not only is each immediately recognizable as a film by, respectively, William Wyler, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock, imagining them having been directed by anyone else is well nigh impossible. Reed’s films don’t stand apart from other films to anywhere near a comparable degree.

Evans cites Reed’s self-effacing, collaborative directing as if he is worried that this admirable trait might detract from the claim for Reed’s auteur status. But collaboration is an approach, not a result. Elia Kazan was remarkably collaborative in making On the Waterfront (USA, 1954) yet it is his film in every important way, including one he could not bring himself to acknowledge until he was very old – that he identified with Terry Malloy. Despite Orson Welles’s welcoming reliance on the ideas and skills of others, no one can argue persuasively – at least not in retrospect – that Citizen Kane (USA, 1941) is not the work of an auteur. Although Hitchcock never took a screen credit, he was closely involved in the scripting of all his films.

It is not Reed’s collaborativeness that distinguishes him from auteurs but his self-effacement. But self-effacement is the source of Reed’s strength as a director. The Third Man is great largely because Reed subordinated self-expression to bringing out the themes and moods of Graham Greene’s script. Reed’s loving attention to visual detail and character tics in such disparate films as A Kid for Two FarthingsThe Fallen Idol, and The Stars Look Down, seems key to their success as films. Variety is what jumps out from his body of work, and his consistent excellence across several genres is impressive, and a refreshing respite from a diet of auteur films. Unfortunately, auteur status has come to be regarded as the highest ranking for a director. It would more fruitfully be regarded as just one way to categorize certain filmmakers. That Reed probably shouldn’t be called an auteur does not mean that he is not a director as great as several of those who are.

There’s more to Evans’s book than his case for Reed as an auteur. In his interpretations of individual films, he draws on several theoretical sources, most frequently Freudian. He frequently places the films in the context of their times. And he draws numerous comparisons and contrasts to other films on similar subjects or of similar genres. Perhaps the chief merit of the book is that it guides the reader through a review of Reed’s body of work and provokes a new, more comprehensive appreciation of it.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 2 March 2006 | Last Updated: 2-Mar-06

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →