Many moons ago, when I watched Citizen Kane for the first time, I wasn’t terribly interested by Orson Welles’ performance. Crazy, right? But it was another Mercury actor who caught my eye– the wonderful Joseph Cotton. For this Double Feature, I figured that some of his best and earliest work makes for a great comparison between his various roles.
The Third Man (1949) Directed by: Carol Reed
The Third Man is considered to be one of the best film noirs out there, set in post-war Vienna. Cotton plays Holly Martins, a writer of pulp westerns, who has come to Europe with the promise of a job by his friend Harry Lime. Unfortunately, the day he arrives is Lime’s funeral. While the police are willing to let go of Lime’s death as an accident, Holly digs deeper, becoming involved in Lime’s inner circle and learning about the mysterious “Third Man.”
There’s a lot about The Third Man which makes a wonderful film– the strong shadows, the famous ferris wheel scene, and the true nature of Harry Lime’s business affairs. While Holly is the main character, the film is dominated by Lime.
In comparison, Holly Martins seems almost helpless– an alcoholic, out of work writer, who the side characters mostly push around with false leads or coddle him on and off. Almost every time he sees the police Martins is convinced that it’s best for him to take the next plane back to the U.S. in the morning. However, in contrast to Lime, Martins is infinitely likable, the last good guy in a post-war world. His determination to exonerate Lime is echoed later with his desire to be close to Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), when the world wants to keep him in shadows.
Even if you’re not a big fan of Joseph Cotton, The Third Man is just one of those movies that is enormously fun to watch. It’s a smart mystery penned by author Graham Greene and is character and plot driven.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Unlike the likable Holly Martins, Uncle Charlie is a nihilistic serial killer. He visits his family in Santa Rosa in order to escape from police. Charlotte (Teresa Wright), the eldest niece, becomes the only one to know her uncle’s secret.
As one of Hitchcock’s earlier films, Shadow of a Doubt doesn’t have some of his usual signatures– no Bernard Herrmann score, no Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, not even a cool blonde. However, it does have a weird family dynamic, something green (in this case, an emerald ring), and vague psychology, all of which is evident in later films by Hitchcock.
Seeing Shadow of a Doubt is realizing just how good Joseph Cotton is at playing a villain. Uncle Charlie is nihilistic, obsessive, and crafty. The only love he seems to show is for the Santa Rosa- Family’s idyllic lifestyle, where everyone is busy. It’s evident that he doesn’t care for anyone when he quickly turns on his neice.
If you’re ever in need of a Hitchcock fix, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the best. The story draws a distinct line between Charlie’s big-city worldview and the idealized, small-town America applied to Santa Rosa, but each character is very unique while still fitting into the Hollywood mold. The father’s favorite hobby is discussing various ways to commit murder with their neighbor and the youngest niece is a voracious reader who shows almost no care at all for anyone else in the plot. The mother is sweet, but very flighty, although she seems to guess at her brother’s secret in one short scene before dismissing it.
Joseph Cotton proved early on that he was a versatile actor, able to perform good guys and villains, attracting the attentions of talented directors, big studios, and fellow actors. Suffice it to say, I am looking forward to seeing some more of his filmography very soon.