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The AFI Top 100 Films: King Kong (#43)

Entertainment 150King Kong (1933)
Starring Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace (story)
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

I think most people from my generation know all about King Kong but haven’t actually seen it. We know about the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, or the huge eye looking through the window followed by a giant hand grabbing at a shrieking woman. We know about Kong fighting giant dinosaurs, and Fay Wray tied up on the pillar and screaming her head off. And really, that’s all you need to know, right?

Well, somewhat. Most people from my generation got their first exposure to the full King Kong experience through Peter Jackson’s loving 2005 remake. And I have to say, most of the time I watched the original I was comparing it to that film. I’m not sure that really helped my appreciation of the 1933 classic, really, but I couldn’t quite help it.

Here’s the story: filmmaker extraordinaire Carl Denham (Armstrong) has an incredible idea for his next project, but needs to find a leading lady for it. He eventually finds down-on-her-luck actress (Ann Darrow), and just like that he’s sailing through the South Pacific to his top-secret location. Both Ann and the ship’s crew get more than they bargained for when she’s offered up to the mysterious island god Kong, a giant ape who falls for her exquisite beauty. The ship’s crew go after her and encounters the jungle’s oversized prehistoric wildlife, falling to horrible deaths. The ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) manages to save Ann, and Denham manages to bring Kong down after the ape smashes through the village of the local tribe. Kong is brought to New York, where…things work out about as well as you expect them to.

The special effects get most of the attention here, and a surprising number of retrospectives claim that King Kong was the first true effects-driven blockbuster. I could totally see that, come to think of it. Moviemaking was still in its relative infancy, and these guys were trying things that had never been done before. The models and effects were extensively detailed, and the soundtrack was the most advanced in all of movies at the time. The writing wasn’t very subtle, but I don’t think that’s the fault of its age; there are tons of movies from that period capable of playing soft notes or letting moments land. But I think that the dialogue was crafted to be as big and overwrought as the monsters in it. There’s a lot of hammering home the motif they’re working with, and the foreshadowing comes across a little ham-fisted. I’m sure it only seems that way because we know the beats that follow so well.

Still, what impresses me is how brutal the movie is. It takes a little while to get going (Kong doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in), but when it does the film more than makes up for lost time. The dinosaurs are as impressive as Kong, and the sheer immensity and power of them come across very well. The crew’s search for Ann is a litany of horrors as they encounter monster after monster, losing men every step of the way. They can’t even stop to wonder at what they’re seeing because they’re far too busy trying to stay alive.

Kong is at its most graphic when innocents are involved. The scenes where the big ape trashes the jungle village and rampages through New York in search of Ann are surprising in just how careless and cruel he can be, stomping, biting and throwing people without even slowing down. I think this is the biggest change between the 1933 original and the 2005 remake. Jackson takes great care to make Kong a lot more sympathetic, and the affection between him and Darrow is actually there. But in the original, their relationship is a lot simpler — Kong desires Ann, but not in a way that anthropomorphizes him. She’s a prize, a toy, and there’s nothing in his actions to indicate something deeper than that. Ann, for her part, is horrified and traumatized by the ordeal. It comes across much more as Kong being a force of nature, and his brief reign of terror is a reminder of what happens when mankind tries to harness forces it cannot control or understand.

It may be just a little dated, and it comes across as a bit melodramatic (even considering its age), but King Kong is still an enormously impressive movie on its own. When you consider just how much it influenced movies of its time and going forward, it’s definitely earned its place in the annals of film history. I think these days it’s more to be enjoyed as a cinematic cultural touchstone than anything, a pivot point in the history of moving pictures.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: Taxi Driver (#47)

Taxi Driver (1976)
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Written by Paul Schrader

Taxi Driver is a movie that’s more fun to think about than to watch. It moves with a rather ponderous pace, with long shots of characters staring or significant gaps in conversation that seem to encourage you to contemplate along with Travis Bickle and the people in his life. It lends itself to a naturalism that’s admirable, but most of the time I simply wondered where all of this was going. Your mileage may vary, of course, particularly if you’re quick to pick up on the themes that director Martin Scorcese and writer Paul Schrader were laying down in those long silences.

Even though I found it tough to remain engaged, I was impressed by how long the movie stuck with me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to read a couple of critiques to get where Schrader was coming from, but even before then it reminded me a lot of a couple of Harlem Renaissance novels I read in high school — Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Travis Bickle would have felt right at home with the protagonists of those two stories, and all three of them struggled to find their place and purpose in society at large. They find themselves at odds with the world for various reasons, and the stories are driven by their attempts to figure out what to do with that.

For Travis, he feels that the world is lacking a moral fiber he considers essential. He likens the streets of New York City to a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, too broken to fix and ripe for destruction. Despite his hatred of the people around him, he longs to be a part of it. At the beginning of the movie he even says that man should not spend too much time in self-reflection. It’s important to go out and be a part of the world.

And so he does. He gets a job as a taxi driver and tries to date a girl he fancies. It turns out he’s not very good at the social aspects of his mission — he takes Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to what basically amounts to a porn flick on one of their early dates, prompting her to break things off rather abruptly. Stung by the rejection, Travis retreats further into himself. What we find in his heart of hearts is a rather ugly disdain for the world even though he enjoys its seedier elements (porn theatres).

His last hope for salvation is the young prostitute Iris (Foster), who he sees as an innocent who’s been swallowed alive by the awfulness of the city around her. They strike up an unlikely friendship, and Travis begins to think that if he can save her, just this one person, then maybe he’ll have saved himself.

Hooray for me, I did it!

The ending can be taken a number of ways, and almost all of them are interesting. Travis’ quest comes to a violent end, and depending on how you see the outcome you can take a few different lessons from it. I think it’s more interesting if you take the ending literally — the movie hasn’t engaged in flights of fancy before, so there’s no reason to think it would start then. When Travis meets Betsy one night sometime later, he picks her up, answers her questions with a confident stoicism, and drops her off by telling her that ride was free of charge.

Iris is saved. Her parents never meet Travis, but write him a letter of gratitude. His quest made the papers, and he’s widely considered a hero for what he’s done. It all wraps up neatly, and Travis’ moral compass seems validated by external acclaim. However, there’s a discordant note there that I think is intentional. Travis still doesn’t understand the world around him; he never determined why Iris made the choices she did, or why Betsy rejected him in the first place. He’s no closer to resolving the boiling pit of trouble in his gut — at best, it’s only quieted for a time. Even though we leave the story with Travis in a happy place, there’s no sense that it will last. There are too many unanswered questions.

The invisible man in Ellison’s novel reaches a level of self-awareness at the end that enables him to make the attempt to rejoin society. Richard Wright discovers that writing is his way of satisfying the hunger he has to put a mark on the world. Both of the protagonists there absorb their experiences and still feel capable of becoming a part of the larger world around them. That sense doesn’t exist here; Travis may have learned the wrong lesson. Instead of becoming a part of society while honoring his own set of virtues, it feels like he views himself as bigger than society, someone who can exert his will on the world around him without being touched by it. His rejection of Betsy at the end is a rejection of the world, and that spells trouble for him later on.

But then, I could be reading this movie all wrong. I get the sense that Bickle is seen as a bit of an anti-hero, and I can’t agree. Despite the fact that his actions have lead to a good outcome, he’s still dangerously unbalanced. There’s still an isolation, a lack of responsibility for the people around him that can’t be admired. Human beings, for better or for worse, are social creatures, and I think Bickle is an example of what happens when we reject that part of our natures. Our thinking gets warped, and even when it comes from a reasonably pure place (Bickle’s longing for a moral world) it can become misanthropic if left to fester.

I think there’s a way of honoring our individuality while still finding a way to integrate into society. Some of us will always have a place as outliers, people who see the group from a perspective most people don’t. It’s a struggle to fill that role; it can be lonely, and more often than not it’s rife with misunderstanding. But part of the job, as it were, is to find a way to explain your perspective and individual beliefs in a way that the whole will understand. That requires patience, persistence, and a self-knowledge that is quite difficult to attain. Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great example of someone who’s managed it. And Travis Bickle is a great example of someone who hasn’t.

Rating: 7/10.

 
 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: From Here to Eternity (#52)

From Here to Eternity (1953)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed
Directed by Fred Zimmerman
Written by Daniel Taradash

From Here to Eternity almost comes across as a melodrama, and without a doubt all of the ingredients are there. Shocking revelations from damaged people with haunted pasts, villains who are infuriatingly incompetent and unlikeable in a way that gives you pleasure in hating them, and an interesting, unique location, for example. This movie, about an Army barracks on the island state of Hawaii before the start of World War II, could have easily become a potboiler romance that stood out as a prime example of its kind.

What makes it different is the sure-handed, subtle direction of Fred Zimmerman, which is a real asset here. He strives for a sort of realism that feels counter-intuitive given the subject matter, but it turns out to elevate the material quite well. Scenes are tightly constructed, with small Easter eggs hidden in the background and peripheries that enrich the personalities of the characters you’re watching on-screen. Conflicts and interactions come across organically, and even though the lives of these people amount to a huge hot mess, you see how they ended up where they did logically and emotionally. It’s quite impressive.

Montgomery Clift is Robert E. Lee Prewitt (yes, really), a rebel (hah!) who’s just joining the G Company after a falling-out with his previous commander. The Captain of the company wants Prewitt to box but he steadfastly refuses, which draws him the ire of the commanding officer and other folks in the outfit. This, of course, leads to extra chores and abuse. The second-in-command, relatively straight-laced Sgt. Milton Warden, doesn’t approve of this but goes along with it despite the respect he has for Prewitt. He also has his eye on the Captain’s unhappy wife, Karen.

During one of his rare base leaves, Prewitt meets Alma, one of the girls at a club downtown. They hit it off pretty well, but their relationship is complicated by their desires — for all his trouble with the company, Prewitt wants to make a career out of the Army, while Alma wants someone rich and respectable. The tension between their dreams and the good life right in front of them grows more and more taut until a chain of events caused by the company’s dysfunction forces them to make a decision, one way or the other.

The movie explores the way our sense of duty to the wrong things really runs us through the wringer. Almost every major character has a misplaced sense of loyalty that makes them unhappy and in some cases, ultimately does them in. Instead of working towards things that deepen the relationships with the people they’ve come to care about, everyone struggles to uphold a misplaced ideal that they don’t even care about. What’s interesting is how this makes them all feel victimized and wronged, so that they feel those closest to them owe them breaks. Prewitt feels a loyalty to the Army that has consistently run him ragged. Warden hates Army officers (presumably) for their feeling of entitlement, and it keeps him in a miserable position where he has all of the responsibility of running the ship but very little power to do so. Alma’s insistence on status keeps her from giving in to the love she shares with Prewitt, while the Captain’s wife feels a strange bond with her philandering husband even though he’s wrecked their marriage beyond repair.

The tragedy here is that people stay the course in their lives hoping that things will magically become better instead of acknowledging that they’re on the road to ruin. It’s puzzling behavior from the outset, because each of us can clearly see that things will never change for them unless they do — something has to give. But haven’t each of us done the same thing, staying in an unhealthy situation for far too long with the hope that something will put things together?

Clift, Lancaster, Kerr and Reed all portray their characters as smart people with large blind spots, and you genuinely empathize with them even they’re being exasperating. That’s a fine tightrope to walk, and everyone does it expertly. By the time the finale rolls in and the consequences of everyone’s actions are forced to the surface, you get the sense that really, it couldn’t have ended any other way. The fragile ambition of even the most competent people is no match for the pulverizing tide of society and history.

So what do we learn from this? I walked away from the movie with the idea of adaptability in my head. It’s incredibly important to be adaptable to your situation, recognizing when your ideals need to be softened in the face of an untenable situation. I don’t necessarily mean throwing out the values that mean the most to you in the face of the slightest resistance, but more recognizing when a certain value needs to be sacrificed for something greater. We live in a world that can be much more stubborn than we could ever hope to be, and learning how to bend when it’s necessary is one of the greatest assets we could have as adults.

From Here to Eternity is a great study in characters who are too stubborn and headstrong for their own good. It’s something that we still struggle with as a society, pretending that “strength” means unwavering from a decision even when it’s revealed to be wrong. It’s interesting to me that this individual drama can be drawn over a larger tapestry today, and how if we’re not careful we could find ourselves facing the same unhappy fates of Prewitt and his company.

Rating: 7/10.

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: Amadeus (#54)

Amadeus (1984)
Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce and Elizabeth Berridge
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Milos Forman

I think we’re getting into the stretch of the top 100 where there are nothing but good movies left; each of these movies does exactly what they set out to do, exemplifying the craft of film-making and storytelling in their own way. So instead of doing a traditional critique of strengths and weaknesses, or talking about the way performances or writing stand out, let’s just assume all of its excellent and talk about the themes, all right?

This is my second time seeing Amadeus, and for the AFI run we wanted to make sure we got the director’s cut. This adds about 20 minutes of additional footage to the movie, but I’m not sure it adds too much more texture to the film. The character of Stanze (Berridge) actually benefits the most from the extra scenes — a confrontation between her and Salieri (Abraham) puts her reaction to him in an entirely different (and much more understandable) perspective. Other than that, you could probably see the theatrical version and miss very little.

Still, even with the minor amount of padding the movie is so, so good. Salieri is a musician who develops an admiration and resentment of Mozart quite early on. While Mozart’s father encourages his son’s musical gift, Salieri’s own dad doesn’t see the point in it at all. Despite this early setback, he’s extremely motivated to be a great musician, devoting his life to the craft to the exclusion of all else. At first, Salieri is a chaste and pious man, who only wants the voice of God to speak through his writing. He wants to reflect the glory of creation, and he achieves enough success to be satisfied for a time.

However, Amadeus rolls in, vulgar and immature and possessed with impossible talent. The rest of the film is Salieri struggling to make sense of his position. He knows enough about music to know how much better Mozart is, and the fact that God saw fit to give so much talent to so despicable a man drives him quite literally crazy. Despairing of his own talent, Salieri eventually turns his back on God and vows to destroy his creation. As you might suspect, things go downhill from there.

Even when Salieri is doing some of the most underhanded things, you really feel for him. I’d venture that he’s one of the most sympathetic, complete villains in movie history — make no mistake, he is not a good man, but there is so much to admire him for, so many points you agree with him on. His struggle is entirely relatable. How many times have we been faced with the fact that someone is so much better at something we’d really give anything to do that well? And how many times has that person, blessed with incomparable talent, sees their gift as no big deal, takes it for granted? It’s a universal frustration amongst storytellers, writ large by Murray’s passionate, controlled performance.

What I find most interesting about Salieri as a character is his tragic flaw. He’s a smart, capable fellow, who can be shrewd and charming by turns. But he lacks grace and the power to accept his position in life. Granted, it’s an incredibly bitter pill to swallow, but he also forgets that even though he has meager musical talent compared to Mozart he outshines his rival in a number of ways. He’s far more responsible, knowledgeable about the ways of the world, able to navigate the political situation of his day with more aplomb. Mozart is a genius, but that same gift makes it impossible for him to get along with people in so many ways. Salieri, though he’s mediocre, benefits from the constraint of his talent.

That’s small comfort to most of us, admittedly. It stings to know that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be better than average at certain things. But acceptance of that can be liberating; instead of judging yourself by the impossible standards of your favorite genius, you gain a more modest perspective that allows you to make and measure progress in a much more reasonable way. Ambition carries us further than we’d ever thought we’d go, but if you leave it unchecked it leads to the bitterness and resentment we find in Salieri. His desire comes from a pure, good place, but it’s twisted by his inability to accept humility.

And even though Amadeus is this epic movie full of powdered wigs and severe 18th century clothing, the themes that run through it are universal. Most of us, on some level, want to excel at something. And it’s an uncomfortable truth for us that it’s quite likely we never will. How do you deal with that? Especially when the truly talented waste the ability you would kill for all of the time? The answer, on its vaguest terms, is not like Salieri. Mozart thinks of him as a guide and a friend who comes to rescue him from the excesses of his own personality, and in a way he’s right. In his efforts to ruin Mozart, Salieri comes very close to actually saving him, and the true tragedy of the movie is that he never got out of his own way enough to do that. Salieri spends so much of the movie wondering why God saw fit to give him enough ability to recognize Amadeus’ talent, but not enough to match it. Perhaps it was so Salieri could preserve and protect it for as long as possible, to learn from it.

That’s the lesson I take from the film. That true beauty and genius should be celebrated, even when it’s not your own. That it’s OK to be a small talent in a big, crowded field. That in so many ways, maintaining your perspective keeps you sane. And that even the most sickeningly talented people have their own troubles, so it pays to be kind when you can.

Rating: 9/10

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Pop Culture, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: MASH (#56)

MASH (1970)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. (screenplay) and Richard Hooker (novel)

MASH is not a friendly movie. Even though you know you’re watching a comedy, the opening title credits throw you off — the theme song is the legendary “Suicide is Painless,” and over the melancholy tune you see shots of wounded soldiers being lifted out of combat by chopper. It creates a diasrmingly somber mood right out of the gate, and when you first meet the film’s nominal protagonist, Capt. Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), his flagrant disregard of authority reads as cynical near-nihilism as opposed to free-wheeling comic anarchy.

Most of the early scenes drop you right into the chaos of the MASH unit, so there’s a constant stream of conversation at all times. It’s tough to figure out which bit of dialogue you’re meant to follow, or if you’re meant to follow a particular thread at all. If you’re not military minded (I’m certainly not), it’s a little difficult to follow the chain of command in any given scene. It all adds up to twenty or thirty minutes of orchestrated chaos that’s confusing, vaguely upsetting, and impossibly slippery. You can’t really get a bead on it.

Then something happens; at some point in the movie, everything clicks. The humor becomes clear, the rhythms of dialogue tap a beat you can follow, and you finally get to know the characters. After a thick and off-putting opening, MASH becomes something different and fascinating in its own right.

Pierce and his best friend, Trapper John MacIntyre (Gould), are the ringleaders of this circus. They’re excellent surgeons but terrible people, and their bad influence spreads through the entire unit until almost all of them are simply reflections of a trickster spirit that just so happens to be able to heal you. After Pierce and MacIntyre persuade or badger everyone into their way of thinking (or in the case of religious zealot Major Frank Burns, eliminate them entirely), the group forms a vastly dysfunctional unit that’s shockingly inappropriate but a bunch of guys you can root for anyway.

The movie is essentially a series of episodes detailing the evolution of the group. One by one, Pierce and MacIntyre deal with the members of the community, getting to know them and then correcting their perspective. Some folks take a little more work than others, but the effect is almost always the same. You come to an understanding with Pierce, and then he floats away to work on his next project. What you end up with is a true cult of personality that gets broken up by war’s end.

I’m not sure if this is the crux of the novel the movie is based on, but director Robert Altman and his merry band of chaotic actors use the setting to present a different view of war. The soldiers were dirty in both mind and body, and no one knew why in the world they were there. These weren’t noble people driven by a sense of patriotism or purpose. They were just a bunch of guys thrown together to do a job. And they made the most of it, stiff-arming any resistance they were faced with. The senselessness of the war (said to be Korean in the movie though everyone knows it was really about Vietnam) was underscored in hedonistic atmosphere that Hawkeye Pierce cultivates so well. They were an Army medical unit just outside the front lines of a nasty, brutal war — any or all of them could go at any time. Might as well make the most of the life you’ve got before then, right?

What makes the movie fascinating is how you’re never quite sure how to feel about what you’re seeing. Hawkeye and company are incredibly misogynist, self-serving and callous. At the same time, they’re the soldiers who were fighting for our freedom back home. You can’t really approve of what they’re doing (even though it’s frequently hilarious), but you can’t pass moral judgement on them either. These characters are in a war that we’re simply seeing from our own couches. Most of us will never have this experience. Who’s to say what that would do to us?

MASH is a messy, funny, uncomfortable movie. It’s absurd and troubling and because of that, fascinating. It’s certainly not the easiest movie to sit through (at least for me), but I think it had a brave authenticity that resonates today. This, for better or for worse, is the face of America abroad.

Rating: 6/10.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: The Third Man (#57)

The Third Man (1949)
Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene

Part-film noir, part-European murder mystery, The Third Man isn’t something I’ve ever seen before. The protagonist, a writer visiting a friend in war-torn Vienna, isn’t as hard-boiled as your standard detective. The femme fatale isn’t quite as devious or troublesome as you see in this type of movie, either. But the fight against a monolithic, byzantine system is just as confusing and demoralizing as ever, and the touches that serve to visualize the struggle really brings that home. In fact, the setting is so well-constructed it’s no surprise that the characters are so outmatched by it.

Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Cotten) is invited to Vienna to stay with his childhood friend, Harry Lime. He arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, though — it turns out he was run down by a car. Martins quickly figures there’s some foul play at work, and tries to sort through his friend’s messy life in an even messier city to get the truth. This earns him a few enemies along the way, and every time he gets an answer there are three more questions that spring up. Anna Schmidt (Valli), one of Lime’s ex-girlfriends, bonds with him through the course of the investigation. At least, until they get an answer neither of them were expecting.

The movie really doesn’t play like a film noir, even though it has all the pieces in place. No one complains about the heat, Martins and Schmidt actually like and trust each other until circumstances tear them apart, and Martins isn’t done in by his own heroism. What actually does happen would be interesting if the characters behaved a bit more logically. When all of the cards are on the table and the main characters do have to make their decisions, they prove to be ultimately disappointing. But more on that later.

The real reason to watch this movie is the wonderful strangeness of post-war Vienna. The city is divided into Russian, French, German and English territories. Each of the foreign nationals seem to mix freely in any of them, though, so chances are most people you meet won’t speak your language. Director Carol Reed has characters hold conversations in their native tongue whether his main character can keep up or not, and it only adds to his confusion — and ours — to great effect. He must be missing something, but what? Broken English can only get you so far when you’re dealing with a complex subject like covering up a homicide.

The other fascinating thing about this movie is Orson Welles himself. His character’s reveal is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in a long time, and Martin’s meeting with him is as riveting as it should be. The entire movie pivots on his one important scene, and afterwards we have a very different idea of where it’s going. Both Martins and Schmidt are forced to deal with what they learn, and here’s where the movie unfortunately falls apart.

I’m all right with my characters having a strong gray streak. After all, this is a film noir. However, I do have an issue with characters who don’t seem to have reasons for choosing one virtue over another. Both Martin and Schmidt consider loyalty to be more important than anything else in the movie, and that doesn’t ring true for me. Knowing what they know to be true, it deeply diminishes my regard for them to see them behave the way they do in the third act. Not only because it’s morally bankrupt, but also because it’s senseless behavior.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the mystery, so I’ll leave it at that. The Third Man is a nice, strange movie that doesn’t give you a chance to orient yourself. If you’re into that sort of thing — and you have a high tolerance for unlikeable characters — this is probably your movie.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2012 in AFI Top 100

 

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