Carol Reed (1906-1976)

Carol Reed (1906-1976)

"Few would dispute that Carol Reed is one of the most important directors to have worked in British cinema; his masterpiece, The Third Man (1949), was voted the greatest British film of all time in a BFI poll. Yet the qualities which distinguish his films remain difficult to categorise and perhaps this accounts for the lack of academic attention paid to his work. In his study of the director, Peter William Evans points towards such recurring themes as father-son relationships, class tensions, his sympathetic depiction of female characters and a concern with innocence versus experience. Reed was also a supreme stylist, whose famous tilted shots seemed to match his often sideways view of a world of shifting values and moral uncertainty.

Reed was born on 30 December 1906 in Putney, South London. His mother was the mistress of the married actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Reed was one of six children she bore him. Tree maintained his second family in solidly middle-class comfort, but the unusual relationship with his inevitably distant father seems to have had some impact on Reed. After public school, he spent a brief period in America (at his mother’s insistence) working with his brother on a chicken farm, but then returned to Britain to take up a career as an actor. He eventually joined a theatre company formed by the thriller writer Edgar Wallace to stage some of his stories, working as an actor and stage manager. When Wallace became Chairman of British Lion in 1927, Reed joined him there as his assistant. With Wallace’s death in 1932 he jointed ATP at Ealing Studios and gradually worked his way up the ranks. He co-directed It Happened in Paris (1935) and then made his solo debut as director with Midshipman Easy (1936), a proficiently handled seafaring adventure.

Reed worked steadily as a director throughout the 1930s making a variety of mainly routine studio films. Most memorable among them is Bank Holiday (1938), which shows the growing influence of documentary realism in British cinema, the early screwball comedy Climbing High (1938) and A Girl Must Live (1939), which demonstrates Reed’s sympathetic handling of female stars, in this case Margaret Lockwood." [2]

Carol Reed (1906-1976)

"Reed’s early films are not remarkable, but few British films before World War II were. In the 1920s and 1930s British distributors were more interested in importing films from abroad, especially from America, than in encouraging film production at home. As a result British films were, with rare exceptions, bargain-basement imitations of Hollywood movies. In 1938, however, the British government stipulated that producers must allocate sufficient funds for the making of domestic films in order to allow an adequate amount of time for preproduction preparation, shooting, and the final shaping of each picture. Directors like Carol Reed took advantage of this increased support of British production to produce films which, though still modestly made by Hollywood standards, demonstrated the artistry of which British filmmakers were capable." [1]

"As the 1940s began, Reed cemented his growing reputation. His adaptation of A. J. Cronin’s The Stars Look Down (1939), the story of the rise of a miner’s son to become an MP, softens the author’s liberal political message and veers towards melodrama but is still a fine early example of socially aware British film-making. The much lighter Night Train to Munich (1940) is clearly indebted to Hitchcock’s thrillers of the 1930s, particularly The Lady Vanishes (1938), but has considerable style on its own account." [2]

Carol Reed (1906-1976)

"For the first time," Arthur Knight has written, "there were English pictures which spoke of the British character, British institutions - even social problems such as unemployment and nationalization - with unexpected frankness and awareness." Both The Stars Look Down and Night Train to Munich brought the director serious critical attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

"In 1942 Reed made a short educational piece for the War Office Film Unit called The New Lot (1943) which showed how a group of raw recruits could be moulded into a tough, loyal fighting unit. It was so popular that Reed was asked to expand it into a feature which became The Way Ahead (1944), an unvarnished depiction of army life. Filmed in a semi-documentary style, the film is full of scenes and characters which have become cliche´s of the war movie genre but which were fresh at the time. It is moving nonetheless and its bleak ending is surprisingly downbeat for a propaganda piece. Following this Reed worked with the American director Garson Kanin on the documentary The True Glory (1945) which uses footage shot by allied cameramen to produce a lucid, powerful depiction of the final days of the war. It was rewarded with an Academy Award. The experience gained by Reed in making wartime documentaries not only influenced his direction of The Way Ahead, but also was reflected in his post-war cinematic style, enabling him to develop further in films like Odd Man Out the strong sense of realism which had first appeared in The Stars Look Down." [1]

"Reed’s great period began with Odd Man Out (1947), an overpoweringly atmospheric account of the last days of a wounded IRA gunman played with melancholy charisma by James Mason. Reed adopts a highly stylised visual technique which perfectly suits the material and shifts the emphasis away from the politics of Ireland towards a story of love and salvation." [2]

Reed (standing) works with actor James Mason on the set of Odd Man Out

"The documentary approach that Reed used to tell the story of Odd Man Out was one to which audiences were ready to respond. Wartime films, both documentary and fictional, had conditioned moviegoers in Britain and elsewhere to expect a greater degree of realism in post-war cinema, and Reed provided it. The more enterprising British producers believed that films should be made to appeal primarily to the home market rather than to the elusive American market. Yet the films that Carol Reed and some others were creating in the post-war years - films which were wholly British in character and situation - were the first such movies to win wide popularity in the United States. Among these, of course, was Odd Man Out, the first film which Reed both produced and directed, a factor which guaranteed him a greater degree of creative freedom than he had enjoyed before the war. For the first time, too, the theme that was to appear so often in Reed’s work was perceptible in Odd Man Out. In depicting for us in this and other films a hunted, lonely hero caught in the middle of a crisis usually not of his own making, Reed implies that man can achieve maturity and self-mastery only by accepting the challenges that life puts in his way and by struggling with them as best he can." [1]

Moving from Rank to Korda’s London Films, Reed was teamed with the novelist Graham Greene, one of the most significant creative associations between a writer and a director in the history of film. Commenting on his collaboration with the director, Greene has written that the success of these films was due to Reed, "the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy, the extraordinary feeling for the right face for the right part, the exactitude of cutting, and not the least important, the power of sympathizing with an author’s worries and an ability to guide him."

Reed looking over a manuscript with Graham Greene

The Fallen Idol was the first of a trio of masterful films which Reed made in collaboration with Greene. It "was adapted from Greene’s short story 'The Basement Room' and reverses its plot structure, but still offers a disturbing examination of the dangers of innocence with Bobby Henrey as the small boy left virtually alone in a London embassy who almost implicates the embassy’s butler, whom he hero-worships, in a crime he didn’t commit. Greene wrote an original screenplay for The Third Man and provided Reed with material perfectly suited to his talents. Its cynical story of postwar disillusionment marries together a number of wonderful elements, from the haunting zither score of Anton Karas to Robert Krasker’s disorientating, skewed camerawork and the unforgettable performance of Orson Welles as the seductive, but morally bankrupt, Harry Lime. Reed’s use of canted shots and chiaroscuro perfectly convey the atmosphere of moral decay central to the narrative.

If Reed’s subsequent work never quite captured the same heights as this trio of films, there is still plenty of interest. He worked with Greene again on Our Man in Havana (1960), a neatly acerbic adaptation of Greene’s novel with well judged performances from Noel Coward and Alec Guinness, and revisited the themes of The Third Man with the Cold War thriller The Man Between (1953). Outcast of the Islands (1952) is an ambitious attempt to film Joseph Conrad’s novel which is only partially successful, while A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) is a slightly fantastical portrait of childhood imagination set in a romanticised East End. His two big budget international productions, Trapeze (1956), a circus story with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), with Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo giving himself a bad neck painting the Sistine Chapel, are both dull, ponderous epics. He was fired from Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) after clashing with its star, Marlon Brando. There was, however, to be a final flourish. It’s hard to resist Oliver! (1968). For all its bowdlerising of Dickens, Reed brings real zest to Lionel Bart’s musical and the casting is, as usual, impeccable, including Reed’s nephew Oliver Reed. The film was a huge box-office hit and won Carol Reed the Oscar as Best Director." [2]

Carol Reed in 1956, with Kay Kendall (soon to be Mrs Rex Harrison), his wife Penelope Dudley-Ward, and Burt Lancaster.

Oliver! in fact proved that Reed was back in top form. In her New Yorker review of the film, Pauline Kael paid Reed a tribute that sums up his entire career in the cinema: "I applaud the commercial heroism of a director who can steer a huge production and keep his sanity and perspective and decent human feelings as beautifully intact as they are in Oliver!"

"It is easy to dismiss Reed as the ultimate professional, reliant upon his writers, honing their scripts with the dedication of a painstaking craftsman. This is to seriously underestimate his achievements as his films are rarely without some merit. There may have been a decline in his later career, but at his peak, particularly with that magnificent trilogy of 1940s films, he won his place among the elite of British directors. These films, with their dark, soured romanticism, are a perfect counterpoint to the more optimistic vision of his contemporaries Michael Powell and David Lean." [2]

A genuinely self-effacing man, Reed was never impressed by the awards and honors he garnered throughout his career (he was knighted in 1952, the first film director to receive such an honour). Summarizing his own approach to filmmaking some time before his death at age sixty-nine in 1976, he said simply, "I give the public what I like, and hope they will like it too." More often than not, they did." [1]


  • Follow Me! (1972)
  • Flap (1970)
  • Oliver! (1968)
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
  • The Running Man (1963)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) (uncredited) (some scenes)
  • Our Man in Havana (1959)
  • The Key (1958)
  • Trapeze (1956)
  • A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)
  • The Man Between (1953)
  • Outcast of the Islands (1952)
  • The Third Man (1949)
  • The Fallen Idol (1948)
  • Odd Man Out (1947)
  • The True Glory (1945) (uncredited)
  • The Way Ahead (1944)
  • The New Lot (1943)
  • The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)
  • A Letter from Home (1941)
  • Kipps (1941)
  • Night Train to Munich (1940)
  • Girl in the News (1940)
  • The Stars Look Down (1940)
  • A Girl Must Live (1939)
  • Climbing High (1938)
  • Penny Paradise (1938)
  • Bank Holiday (1938)
  • Who's Your Lady Friend? (1937)
  • Talk of the Devil (1936)
  • Laburnum Grove (1936)
  • Midshipman Easy (1935)
  • It Happened in Paris (1935)