Trevor Howard died on January 7, 1988, age 74. We celebrate him by reposting Imogen Sara Smith’s penetrating profile of this incomparable actor, first published in 2011.
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In between the idealized lover and the cantankerous old goat lay a handful of roles in which Howard managed to simultaneously embody and undermine the archetypal Englishman.
“She loves me . . . she loves me not . . . ” the Englishman recites. He isn’t plucking petals from a daisy but wincing as pellets of lead shot are painfully dug out of his back with a pair of eyebrow tweezers. In lieu of anesthetic, the Englishman has flippancy: an infinite resource of mockery that drives back any incursion of feeling. In Alberto Cavalcanti’s Brit noir classic They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), everyone trades in frivolous, insolent patter, just as everyone trades in forged petrol coupons, black market cigarettes, and nylons.1 When a police inspector and a notorious gang-leader collide in a rooming house where they’re both hunting the same man, they work so hard to one-up each other that the exchange becomes absurdist:
Copper: What frolic whim brings you to these happy portals?
Spiv: Must be animal magnetism. What are you doing here, waiting for a taxi?
Copper: No, I come every year to take the waters. I see you brought Frankenstein.
[indicates hulking goon]
Spiv: Yeah, he’s working his way through college.2
No one is more dependent on cutting, cynical wit than the hero, Clem Morgan, played by the thin-lipped and keen-eyed Trevor Howard. His sharp, dry voice is honed for sneering; the scornful sarcasm of his refrain, “I believe you — thousands wouldn’t,” is distilled like Napoleon brandy. Clem is a well-bred R.A.F. hero so jaded by his war experience and bored by civilian life that he joins a gang of black-marketeers just for kicks. We first see him in a nightclub, too drunk to light his own cigarette, fawning over an expensive-looking, faithless blonde. The aptly named mobster Narcissus (Griffith Jones) wants Morgan to join his gang because he has “class,” but the preening Cockney’s desire to better himself quickly reverts to resentment of his social betters. Clem is a slumming gentleman who, once sober, shows his true colors, refusing to deal in drugs or allow his compatriots to kill a policeman. Deriding him as an amateur, Narcy frames him and he’s sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labor, but breaks out and comes seeking revenge.
Cavalcanti, a Brazilian expatriate whose career began in France with the poetic documentary Rien que les Heures (1926), directed one of the definitive portraits of British postwar malaise. They Made Me a Fugitive combines grubby, hard-edged settings and crackling dialogue with shadowy, off-kilter camerawork (by Otto Heller) and clear-eyed depictions of cruelty and treachery. Just as fog floods the bleak countryside and damp pervades the glistening city streets, a mood of unease, disappointment, and moral corrosion grips everyone in the film. The London underworld is peopled by blokes named Soapy, Bert, Curly, Limpy, Tiny, and Figetty Phil; their bruised Judys; and a sharp-tongued, invincibly dignified old harridan named Aggie who presides over the funeral parlor where the gang smuggles their contraband goods in coffins.3 But “respectable crooks” are giving way to “cheap, rotten, after-the-war trash” like Narcy, a psychotic egotist who enjoys beating up women. When one of the old hands objects to using a gun (evidence of creeping Americanization), Narcy snaps, “Don’t be so reactionary. This is the century of the common man.” Clem, for his part, was a P.O.W. in Germany for two years and escaped by killing a guard with an empty beer bottle. He says he hasn’t killed anyone “since they put them out of season,” but he justifies his law-breaking by insisting that his only crime was to keep doing what his country put him in uniform to do, after they’d taken it back.
On the run after breaking jail — wounded, hungry, ill-clothed, and unshaven — Clem breaks into a house and meets someone even scarier than Narcy: a morose, dumpy, lisping housewife (Vida Hope) who offers him a bath, a suit of clothes, and a meal, then asks for a small favor in return. She wants him to shoot her husband, a barely sentient souse whose chronic inebriation has driven her to dead-eyed madness. She assumes that since Clem has already killed, one more murder couldn’t make any difference to him. He beats her off disgustedly, but after he leaves she guns down her husband and claims it was the fugitive. “I don’t know what England’s coming to,” people keep saying. A lorry driver who gives Clem a lift complains of how dishonest people have become, and in the same breath offers to sell him some petrol coupons.
Arriving in London wearing the cap and leather jacket of the lorry driver, whom he left tied up on the side of the road, Clem breaks in on Sally (Sally Gray), Narcy’s ex-girlfriend, through whom he hopes to track down the only person who can clear his name. A voluptuous blonde with a husky voice and a sulky face that could turn melancholy, Gray made a good foil for Howard (they had appeared together in Green for Danger the previous year), and within a single scene they manage to pass convincingly from barbed contempt to mutual devotion. Not that Clem is prepared to get soppy, even with a woman willing to risk her life for his sake. He admits that he wishes he had met her before he went wrong, and kisses her, but then veers back into the safety of quips and sneers. (“Is that a bohemian suggestion?” he rudely responds when she offers to let him hide out in her apartment.) Just as Narcy remains vicious to the bitter end — insisting with his dying breath that Clem was guilty and inviting him and Sally to rot in hell — Clem remains snide and stiff-lipped to the last. As he’s led back to prison he orders Sally to forget him, dousing any swell of feeling with cold realism: “It’ll be easier than you think.”
Love in the Time of Austerity: Early Encounters with David Lean
It is ironic that Trevor Howard is best remembered for his first major film role in the hopelessly romantic Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Summed up by David Thomson as “a candid, scathing personality,” Howard wasn’t charming like his namesake Leslie; he wasn’t suave and sinister like James Mason or George Sanders; he wasn’t romantic like Olivier or creepy like Eric Portman; he wasn’t a matinee idol like Dirk Bogarde or a rough-hewn working man like Stanley Baker. He didn’t fit any of the standard types of the Englishman, as understood by Hollywood: charming gent, arrogant aristocrat, prattling Cockney. But he was utterly British in his impatient rigor, that dry, sharp, scathing quality. By contrast, as the gentle and passionate doctor in Brief Encounter, his voice is soft, closer to Leslie Howard’s refined purr. He beams his eye-crinkling smile, all boyish enthusiasm, and lest we miss the point, Celia Johnson keeps comparing him to an excited schoolboy.
Trevor Howard was thirty-two when he played Alec Harvey, but tackling his first major film role. The warm-voiced, pipe-smoking Roger Livesey had originally been considered, but Lean wanted someone younger and unknown, and cast Howard after seeing him in a small role in the wartime drama The Way to the Stars. His inexperience led to multiple takes of difficult scenes, and the far more accomplished Celia Johnson described her co-star to her husband as pleasant but rather stupid. It’s easy to forget how much Johnson dominates the movie, and how little we ever really know about Alec, whom we see only through the eyes of Johnson’s Laura Jesson. We spend the whole film inside her head, listening to her voice-over and observing her exquisitely delicate reactions in extended close-ups. Adapted from Noël Coward’s play Still Life, the film is a marriage of Coward’s hyper-verbal theatrical style and Lean’s masterfully cinematic method, which speaks through composition, shadows, and ambient sound (the scream of a train whistle takes the place of music underscoring moments of anguish). As with even the most successful marriages, there are moments of incompatibility and redundancy.
Both Johnson and Howard employ an economical, understated, naturalistic style of acting that salvages some of Coward’s mannered lines. Howard’s dialogue presents a tougher problem, since roughly half his lines are declarations of love. So ardently and so frequently does he tells Laura that he loves her (with his whole heart and soul, till the end of his life, etc., etc.) that Alec risks coming off as a female fantasy, though Howard’s crispness and simplicity save him from appearing foolish (or soppy.) He wasn’t exactly handsome — at least by movie-star standards — but his intense gaze had hypnotic power. In Fugitive, Sally Gray, dancing in a fluffy musical comedy, keeps seeing his face staring at her through the wire screen of the prison visiting room, his eyes burning into her. In Brief Encounter, the first hint we get that he will turn out to be the hero is when the camera creeps away from Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey, the comic-relief lower-class couple, to Howard and Johnson sitting at a table in the background, his eyes fixed on her with paralyzing intentness.
Years later, Lean told Kevin Brownlow that Howard was “so insensitive he didn’t know what we were doing half the time. He later became a wonderful actor, but oh dear, there were a lot of things that went straight over his head.” Specifically, Lean said that Howard couldn’t understand the scene in which Laura comes to the borrowed apartment where Alec has begged her to meet him. Everyone knows why she’s there, Lean recalled Howard arguing, so “why doesn’t he fuck her?” Why do they talk about the rain and her wet coat and the damp fire? Lean, of course, understood how nervous the couple would be, alone together for the first time, and how they would cover the awkwardness with polite banalities. He beautifully expresses Laura’s sense of guilt by making the flat a miserably gloomy, cold, unwelcoming place.
With its drab tea-rooms and self-abnegation, Brief Encounter became an object of derision in the 1960s, a whipping boy for traditional English repression and for the Age of Austerity that postwar youths were so eager to escape.4 (In fact, the film is set before the war, in the late 1930s, though it seems evocative of postwar stoicism.) Nowhere does the film invite more jeering from modern audiences than in the overreaction to the thwarted tryst, both on the part of the couple themselves (Alec laments the “sordidness” of it) and on the part of Stephen Lynn (Valentine Dyall). Lynn is the cinematic equivalent of the Gentleman from Porlock, the unfortunate blunderer who interrupted Coleridge and made him forget the rest of “Kublai Khan.” Few actors have ever succeeded in making such a loathsome impression in so little screen time as Dyall does, with his smug smile and plummy voice, sanctimoniously expressing his “disappointment” in Alec, who he thinks has been fooling around with a patient.5
This whole sequence, unfortunately, saddles the film with a reputation for prudishness. It is, of course, a film about emotional repression — so agonizingly dramatized in the scene where the couple is forced to say their last farewell in the presence of the oblivious chatterbox Dolly Messiter — and about people who choose obligation and decency over passion. It is precisely these restrictions that heighten the couple’s passion; dramatically, romance depends on obstacles and restraint. But Brief Encounter‘s most universal theme, eternally relevant and quite separate from any system of morality or sexual mores, is the longing for escape from the routine.
The dullness of Laura’s life — sewing while her husband does the crossword, looking forward to her weekly shopping trip because it makes a change — is so crushing that little indulgences like going to the movies (where Donald Duck, with his “dreadful energy and blind, frustrated rages,” represents an emotional release), or spending an afternoon in the botanical gardens, or drinking champagne at lunch, seem like thrilling and sinful adventures.6 Laura’s fantasies after her first kiss with Alec — waltzing with him, wearing evening clothes in swanky nightclubs, drifting in a gondola, standing on a tropical beach under the stars — are so silly and conventional that they become touching: her imagination has been imprinted by Thursday matinees of movies like Flames of Passion. The way Alec and Laura, still virtual strangers, start to speak insistently of their doomed love, “this overwhelming feeling we have for each other,” reveals that far from wanting to suppress their feelings, they are driven by a desire, even a need, to have such violent feelings — at least one more time before they grow old.
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Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949) is a methodical antithesis of Brief Encounter. It is about a protracted encounter, a long, off-and-on romance between a man and woman (Trevor Howard and Ann Todd) whose youthful love is reignited whenever they meet. Unlike Alec and Laura, they do commit adultery, and are not tortured by guilt. In place of the mundane settings and somber noir shadows of the earlier film, Lean creates a world of gauzy whiteness, flickering shadows, and rippling, liquid light, in which his polished lovers luxuriate. Where Brief Encounter is simple, straightforward, and at times spelled out too fully, The Passionate Friends is ambiguous, with complicated characters who divide one’s sympathies. But perhaps the most interesting reversal is that where Laura embraces a love she can’t have, at the cost of great pain, Ann Todd’s character, Mary, is a woman who gives up the man she loves because she shrinks from love itself: from belonging to another person, from “this clutching and this gripping,” as she tells him, trying to explain why she won’t marry him. “I want to belong to myself,” she declares. “Then your life will be a failure,” he retorts.
H. G. Wells wrote the novel on which the film is based in 1913 as an exploration of how a modern woman’s desire for independence intersects with the needs of the heart. A polemic against “the servitude of sex,” the book advocates relationships based on equality and intellectual companionship, as suggested by the title. Lean’s film strips away all of Wells’ socio-political arguments, and in so doing, turns Mary into a neurotic, confused woman torn apart by conflicting desires. Part of the problem — or at least, part of what makes the film puzzling — lies in Howard’s character, Stephen Stratton. Stephen narrates the book (which is written as a long letter to his son), but in the film he is, like Alec in Brief Encounter, reduced to a figure in a woman’s consciousness, and to something of a cipher. Howard suffered even more this time from the dominance of the female star, since Lean fell in love with Todd (whom he would marry) during filming and ignored his male lead completely.7 Stephen is by far the least interesting of the three protagonists, the third being Mary’s husband, Howard Justin, played by Claude Rains.
Mary decides to marry Justin not only because he’s rich, but because he is willing to accept that she does not love him, and to grant her space and freedom within the security of his wealth and his undemanding affection. But despite Mary’s complaint about “this clutching and this gripping,” and Justin’s assertion that Stephen and Mary’s passion is dangerous, never once does Stephen display jealousy or possessiveness. He is, indeed, almost absurdly tolerant and forgiving of Mary’s vacillation and cruelty. He is kind, good-humored, intelligent, and handsome — Howard never looked better than he does here, dashingly attired and burnished by the film’s soft gleam. Stephen and Mary are plainly soul-mates, and their romantic idylls are presented in almost cloyingly pretty scenes — all apple-blossoms and white sun-dresses — that contrast with the cold, constrained tedium of her life with Justin, a dry, workaholic banker. Stephen is simply too perfect, leaving the viewer with the riddle of Mary’s inexplicable rejection of him, even as she daydreams about being with him and suffers pangs of jealousy when he finally marries another woman.
Fortunately, Ann Todd excelled at portraying vague mental turmoil under a brittle porcelain exterior. Most of the film proceeds in a nested series of flashbacks, and Lean sustains long close-ups in which shadows shift and play over her face. Her eyes are strangely dark and troubled in a face that looks carved from ice. Whenever she sees Stephen this face lights up and becomes girlish, for instance during a spectacular New Year’s Eve costume party (modeled after the Chelsea Arts Ball) at which they spot each other amid a huge, roiling crowd. The glamorous settings in which the lovers meet recall Laura’s schoolgirl fantasies on the train. It’s tempting to call this a “film blanc,” since it opens with images of leaf-shadows playing on white curtains; a white sheet fluttering over a bed; a marble column on a terrace encircled by vines; and Ann Todd, all in white, exclaiming over “white bread . . . lots of butter . . . cream!” as she eats on an airplane flying through snowy mountains of clouds. But the beautiful surroundings, like her own physical beauty, accentuate the sense that something inside Mary is missing or flawed.
When she breaks her promise to leave her husband for Stephen, she tells him that she’s not a good person, and that her love isn’t worth very much. In some ways, The Passionate Friends is a typical “woman’s picture” in that it depicts a woman who has everything yet winds up so unhappy that, like Laura, she considers the classic adulterous woman’s way out, jumping under a train. But the film is a highly unusual variation on the standard love triangle. The heroine marries a wealthy older man not out of willingness to sell herself for luxury, but from a desire for freedom. Not so much freedom to do as she pleases (there’s no reason to think Stephen wouldn’t allow her that) but freedom from intimacy and desire. The movie seems like a riddle because its central idea is so radical, indeed unheard-of: that a woman might not value romantic love above all else; that she might even find it somehow destructive to her identity.
Ironically, in the end it is Justin, who was supposed to be the safe, stable choice, who tears Mary’s life apart out of jealousy and vindictiveness. When he discovers that she and Stephen spent time together in Switzerland before his arrival (quite innocently, in fact), he sues for divorce and names Stephen as co-respondent, thus burdening Mary with the unbearable guilt of inadvertently ruining Stephen’s career and marriage. Claude Rains, who spends much of his screen time dictating boring letters to his secretary, has a marvelous scene in which he reveals, through his stunned hurt and desolation at her imagined betrayal, how much he really loves his wife. Justin turns out to harbor more fervent and destructive passions than Stephen, who ends up happily married to his second choice, with no regrets or ambivalence.
With his steel-rod posture and “jolly good, old boy” accent, Howard was effective in these clean-cut, rectilinear parts, if not terribly interesting. By casting him as nice, soft-spoken, awfully decent gentlemen, Lean missed the fact that Howard was at his best playing men with a streak of brittle disdain, sharp anger, or febrile madness. These streaks came to dominate his later performances, a catalogue of ranting autocrats like Captain Bligh, crusty peers, and bawdy, drink-ravaged squires — a surprising trajectory for a career that began among the teacups in Brief Encounter. In between the idealized lover and the cantankerous old goat lay a handful of roles in which Howard managed to simultaneously embody and undermine the archetypal Englishman.
From Officer and Gentleman to Moral Degenerate: Collaborations with Carol Reed
He was born Trevor Wallace Howard-Smith in Margate, Kent in 1913, but spent his early years in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where his father worked for Lloyd’s of London. He traveled widely and spent parts of his youth in San Francisco, New York, and Ontario before completing his schooling at Clifton College in Bristol. These, at any rate, are the facts on which people generally agree. Two books from the 1980s, an authorized biography (Trevor Howard: A Gentleman and a Player) and Trevor Howard: The Man and His Films, both read as rather lightweight puff pieces. According to them, Howard off-screen was a hearty, uncomplicated bloke whose main interests in life were cricket and drinking, but who did not suffer from a serious alcohol problem; who was generally well-liked and did not really deserve his reputation as a hell-raiser.8 His fondness for four-letter words, extensively documented elsewhere, becomes in these books an overuse of “bloody,” so he comes off sounding like an old British colonel growling over the port. Then, in 2001, came Trevor Howard: A Personal Biography by Terence Pettigrew, who had befriended the actor in his later years.
Was it a hatchet job? The headline of the serialized excerpts published in The Daily Mail (one of Britain’s typically tawdry rags) was “Coward, Liar, Psychopath: The Truth About the Hero of Brief Encounter.” According to the sleazy tidbits selected for the newspaper, Howard was a complete bounder. It’s not just that he was a chronic womanizer and a roaring, drunken sot, and remorseless on both counts. Pettigrew’s real bombshell was that Howard had been ordered by the British military to resign his officer’s commission in 1943 because he was diagnosed as being mentally unstable and having a “psychopathic personality,” and that he had colluded with publicists in creating and maintaining a fabricated heroic war record, including the false claim that he had received the Military Cross. In the earlier books, the issue of Howard’s war record was treated fairly breezily; he admitted that he had not wanted to serve his country and had been a lousy soldier, and insisted that he had been embarrassed by the later lies fed to the press. Since the documents containing the real details of Howard’s wartime career are still sealed (and will be until fifty years after his death), any conclusions at this point are premature.
Pettigrew’s book is not nearly so relentlessly lurid as the newspaper excerpts, and expresses ample admiration for Howard’s talents. The author puts the blame for his subject’s personal problems on a cold, loveless childhood inflicted by absentee colonial parents who left him to spend lonely holidays with indifferent landladies. It sounds trite but may well be true, and his insecurity and lack of social bonds can account for his tendency to fib about his achievements, his love of drink (which did eventually kill him), and his penchant for acting (“I felt better when I was someone else,” he admitted, a common sentiment among actors.) That he is often associated with military roles, despite his disastrous career in the army, is an irony typical of the acting profession: movie stars are often most successful at projecting personas quite unrelated to their real natures. That he came on the scene just as Britain was emerging from World War II was a piece of good luck. The skeptical, burned-out mood of the time brought him ideal roles, parts that explored the point at which his stiff upper lip met something unpleasantly hard-edged, at which his bulldog Britishness became bullying, and his scorn turned corrosive and doubled-edged.
Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946) is all about cracks under the surface. It portrays the war of nerves, the way people fray and fracture when living under the stress of bombardment. The setting is an emergency hospital during the Nazis’ V-1 offensive against Britain. The V-1s, nicknamed “Doodlebugs” by the British, inspired unique terror because of the way their buzzing drone would cut out before they dropped their load, leaving a paralyzing moment of silence before the unpredictable explosion. In an early scene, the director of the hospital lectures his staff about the need for discipline and morale under these trying circumstances, but the place is a mass of jealousies and resentments, all stretched to breaking point by the tension of the war. Green for Danger briskly shatters the beloved wartime myth of British phlegm and cheerful muddling through.
The head surgeon, a self-satisfied womanizer, takes advantage of his nurses. A kiss in the aftermath of a bomb pinpoints the way anxiety and instability drive men and women into romances of distraction and release. One nurse has a sister who broadcasts propaganda for the Nazis; another is breaking down under the strain of guilt and grief because her mother was killed in a raid. Trevor Howard plays an anesthetist, under a cloud because a girl died in his care and losing his fiancée (Sally Gray) because of his possessiveness and unreasonable jealousy. (The gnawing humiliation of a secret disgrace is a recurring theme for Howard; in the brisk, demi-Hitchcock chase thriller The Clouded Yellow , he plays a spy summarily fired after a botched job.) He’s proud and prickly and hot-tempered, making matters worse for himself when a man mysteriously dies while he’s administering anesthetic.
This unsavory crowd, well supplied with motives for wanting to bump the victim off, makes for a classical whodunit, and the suspects are warned, “Don’t trust your neighbor, your roommate, your fiancé, your friend.” Into their midst comes Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim), a crafty and eccentric detective who sees through all of them and remains utterly cold-blooded, whimsically bemused by their pains and fears. Green for Danger is a perfect demonstration of how the war created the noir ethos by shattering trust, burdening people with secrets and traumas, and scraping their nerves raw.
“We’ll drink to victory, no matter how sad it tastes,” Howard says in So Well Remembered (Edward Dmytryk, 1947), a film that opens with the celebration of V-E Day and settles into a long flashback as the hero, John Mills, looks back over his life. It’s a worthy, earnest, if slightly plodding film set in a Lancashire mill town, where Mills devotes his life to bettering the lot of the workers, while his pathologically selfish upper-class wife tries to push him up the ladder of success in Parliament. Howard plays Mills’ best friend and conscience, an unkempt, drunken doctor who remains bitter and candid about the plight of the poor. He has a wonderful, self-lacerating speech about alcoholism and the “exhilarating process of decay” by which it blurs and breaks down character. This is another example of how unnecessary sincerity is in acting. Far from lamenting his own enslavement to the bottle, Howard once declared, “If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink, I’d spend it all on drink.” Carol Reed, when arguing with producers that Howard should have the lead in Outcast of the Islands (1952), said affectionately that he could think of no actor better suited to play a moral degenerate.
The first English word we hear in Outcast of the Islands is “scoundrel,” and Howard spends the rest of the movie plumbing the depths of that word, showing just how weak, corrupt, mean, selfish, and all-around worthless he can be. Based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, the film has some flaws but captures Conrad’s unflinching view of human foulness, the tragic certainty that good men will be disillusioned and betrayed, as well as his red-blooded storytelling and lushly exotic locations. Set in Singapore and Borneo, the film was shot in Ceylon, taking Howard back to the island where he had spent his earliest years. (He loved to travel, and often accepted film roles merely because they took him to appealing locations, like Tunisia in the picturesque though underpowered archaeological thriller The Golden Salamander.)
Here he plays Willems, an ambitious piece of human rubbish who owes everything to the noble and soft-hearted Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson), who picked him out of the gutter as a boy. His compulsion to betray his benefactor is never fully explained; it seems to be a mixture of natural venality and inchoate resentment of Lingard’s trust and charity. When we first see Willems, he’s cockily lording it over a billiard table — despite missing his shot — wearing a white tropical suit and looking amazingly louche, bloated and shiny with self-regard. He’s vicious to his wife, first brushing her off with a rapid sneer and then, after he’s been disgraced, telling her in a soft, sadistic voice that she has always been a stone around his neck and that he’ll forget her before he’s out the door.
He’s fired for embezzling and wanted by the police, but Lingard takes pity on him and carries him off to a remote village in Borneo where he has a trading post. It’s hard to know why Lingard trusts anyone as ill-humored, graceless, and insincere as Willems, but the Captain’s partner Almayer later complains about his reckless habit of taking pity on stray dogs and other riff-raff. Bored out of his mind in the wholesome, primitive settlement where he lives with the disapproving Almayer (Robert Morley) and his kind, awkward wife (Wendy Hiller), Willems becomes consumed by lust for the stern yet sultry Aissa (Kerima), daughter of the chief of an enemy tribe. He thinks he has found the ideal relationship: a woman who doesn’t understand a word of English, so he can insult her even as they’re making love. In fact, the proud Aissa seduces him in order to get him to reveal the secret of navigating the passage to the settlement, so that her tribe can profit from hiring another trader. Willems does shrink at first from cheating Lingard, but after Almayer contemptuously rejects him (Morley gives a brilliant performance as a man driven almost insane by hatred), he sides with Aissa’s tribe.9
The consequences are disastrous for everyone. Willems blames his downfall on the devil that possessed him — Aissa, whose warrior savagery shocks him. He’s revealed as a man with no core, no will or character, like a fruit that has rotted into mush from the inside out. Lingard comes upriver in a canoe to find his protégé raving in the jungle, and condemns him to remain there. “You’re my mistake. I shall hide you here,” he says in an overtly theatrical scene that only an actor like Richardson could carry off. “You are a bitter thought . . . You are my shame.” Lingard turns his back and walks to his canoe, knowing that Willems doesn’t have the guts to shoot him. Howard pulls out all the stops in playing this arrogant, dyspeptic man who treats the ubiquitous crowds of beautiful, laughing native children like a swarm of mosquitoes. Ultimately, Willems’ inability to experience any finer feeling comes to seem like a congenital deformity, and Howard creates a definitive portrait of a coarse, insensitive mind.
Before casting him as a moral degenerate, Carol Reed cast Howard as a moral fencepost in the best film either of them ever made. Howard owed Reed a great deal. His first film appearance was a small, uncredited role in Reed’s wartime drama The Way Ahead (1944), which he obtained by doggedly pursuing the director. Unlike Lean, Reed liked Howard, and they worked together a total of five times, including The Key (1958) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which Reed began directing before he was replaced. Graham Greene liked him too, and he was ideally suited for Greene’s morally intricate, guilt-infused yet bone-dry stories. (In 1953, he starred in an adaptation of The Heart of the Matter.) Greene and Reed charged Howard with no easy task in The Third Man (1949); he had to supply the counter-weight to the seductive amorality of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime, as the two fight over the loyalty and conscience of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), the naïve American writer of Westerns, in the process shredding his ideals.
Howard’s Major Calloway is the champion of Lime’s innocent victims, the children killed or brain-damaged by diluted penicillin he sold, but he’s also cynical and brutally unsentimental. He tells Martins that “death’s at the bottom of everything” and that “the world doesn’t make any heroes,” and he has no scruples about urging him to betray his best friend, or about using Lime’s girlfriend as a pawn, knowing Holly will make a deal (agreeing to be his “dumb decoy duck”) to save her from being deported. He scoffs at Holly’s “cheap novelette” ideals and cowboy romanticism, but plays on his soft heart by taking him to see the maimed children. Holly may be the most foolish character in the film, but he also seems to be the only one capable of changing his mind or doubting himself.
The novella version of The Third Man that Graham Greene wrote as part of the film’s development, never intending it to be published, is narrated by Major Calloway. The brief voice-over at the opening of the film (“I never knew the old Vienna . . . “) is derived from the novella, but rather than having Trevor Howard supply it, the narration was done by Carol Reed, and thus floats inexplicably as the voice of a character whom we never meet. Pushing Major Calloway to the side, as just another character rather than the central observer, gives the film its ambiguity. His strict, impatient moral clarity is not privileged as the only reasonable response to the situation. Instead, while ultimately vindicated, he also appears condescending, callous, and occasionally petty (he is nettled by Martins’ sly insistence on calling him Callahan, snapping, “I’m English, not Irish.”) Sporting a military beret and neatly trimmed mustache that accent the chiseled lines of his face, speaking in a clipped undertone, Howard is the aesthetic opposite of Orson Welles with his fleshy, swarthy handsomeness; his rich, mesmeric voice; his feline smile and elegant black overcoat. Welles as Lime is the personification of bombed-out Vienna: both demonstrate the allure of ruins, of physical and moral corruption.
The Third Man has its cake and eats it too: it’s an exercise in intoxicating style that simultaneously dissects the ease with which style can trump substance in the movies, the way aesthetic bliss can set one’s moral compass spinning. Howard’s refusal to ingratiate himself as Calloway works to his advantage: he operates like a surgeon, cutting open Lime’s world to reveal the ugly truth. Ruthless and detached, he turns ethical certainty into a form of disenchantment; a tired, incurious assumption that everything is rotten. In the end, the film’s tilting world of shadows and leprous alleys and rich glistening nights gives way to wintry sun and an endless avenue of bare pollarded trees. Major Calloway drives off in his jeep, leaving Lime in his foolproof coffin, the grief-numbed Anna advancing into an empty future, and Holly soaking up the graveyard quiet of his final disappointment. They’re all stranded in Calloway’s world, a place stripped of illusions as the trees are stripped of leaves, where the straight and narrow road runs through a city of the dead.
- Resentment of rationing — particularly of food rationing, which continued until the mid-1950s in Britain — led to widespread cheating. Authorities estimated that 90 percent of claims of lost ration books were fraudulent. [↩]
- An icon of postwar British cinema, the “spiv” is a petty criminal or black-marketeer distinguished by flashy clothes and Cockney slang. The origin of the term is obscure. [↩]
- It is hard to believe that the opening of Some Like It Hot was not inspired by the opening of They Made Me a Fugitive, since their depictions of faux funerals are virtually identical. [↩]
- It was not only later audiences who mocked the film; its premiere was, for some reason, held in a theater in a working-class, dockside neighborhood in Rochester, where the patrons howled at the middle-class couple’s abstinence. [↩]
- Billy Wilder always claimed this scene was the inspiration for The Apartment. Clearly he fruitfully misremembered Brief Encounter, since he described Stephen Lynn as someone who knowingly lends his flat for trysts. [↩]
- In Neither Here Nor There, writer Bill Bryson describes how, during a blissful sojourn in Capri, he “began to feel that queasy guilt that you can only know if you have lived among the English — a terrible suspicion that any pleasure involving more than a cup of milky tea and a chocolate digestive biscuit is somehow irreligiously excessive.” [↩]
- Lean had brought Howard in to replace Marius Goring when he took over direction from Ronald Neame. [↩]
- Howard hit it off immediately with another actor saddled with such a reputation, Robert Mitchum; the two men consoled each other with booze and marijuana during the endless filming of David Lean’s unbearably sluggish and inflated Ryan’s Daughter (1970). [↩]
- While the film seems to endorse the distasteful view that taking up with a native woman is the ultimate taint and dishonor for a European like Willems, in Conrad’s novel both Mrs. Almayer and the first Mrs. Willems are also natives, so Aissa’s race is not an issue. Aissa also has a fully developed inner life in the book, while in the movie she never speaks. [↩]