“I never knew the old Vienna before the War” – The Third Man and coming to terms with the post-war world

As The Third Man turns 70, we delve into what it tells us about Britain and the building of a new global epoch

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Cities rarely look as good as they do in the movies. The intoxicating power of the urban sprawl has been a focus of film classics since the dawn of cinema, from the Berlin underworld in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to the scum-ridden streets of New York in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece of British film noir, The Third Man, is similarly entwined with the city of Vienna. The ruined boulevards and subterranean passages of the Austrian capital provide a perfectly murky stage for a cynical tale of crime and corruption during the birth of the Cold War.

It’s a war-torn town with dark cobbled streets and racketeers lurking inside every shadow. The palpable crookedness of the environment is even felt in Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with dutch angles and extreme closeups fostering a constant sense of unease – accompanied, of course, by a timelessly evocative zither score from Anton Karas.

But The Third Man‘s Vienna is so much more than an atmospheric setting; it captures a changing world in a period of political and economic turmoil. The film arrived only a few months after the Berlin airlift; a time when the allied coalition which had defeated the Nazis was beginning to break apart. An uneasy detente had given way to open animosity between the Communist Eastern bloc and the capitalist West. As an occupied city in the former Third Reich, Vienna was at an epicentre of these tensions, and as such it provided a perfect microcosm of this post-war global order which was still in its infancy.

The importance of the film’s volatile political context is foregrounded in a brilliantly sardonic opening narration, provided by director Carol Reed himself. In character as a seedy black-market racketeer, Reed explains how Vienna had been divided into various sectors under the control of American, Soviet, British and French forces respectively. “What a hope they had,” he comments, “all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” The Third Man, then, is not just the story of a city, but of a whole new world which had been born from the ashes of the Second World War.

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Amid this unfamiliar geopolitical landscape, the film seems preoccupied with the role of Britain on the world stage, and how this once-mighty nation might come to terms with the newly emergent supremacy of the United States and the Soviet Union. Acclaimed novelist Graham Greene adapted the screenplay of The Third Man from his own novella, but made one crucial change from page to screen. His characters Holly Martins and Harry Lime, respectively the protagonist and the villain of the drama, were recast as Americans rather than Britons. This change had obvious commercial implications for a British film pitching itself to the US box-office, but placing two American characters so centrally within a European story also reflected the growing dominance of the US in world affairs.

Indeed, Holly Martins is not just an American citizen, but a writer of the most American of genres, the Western. As he barges brashly into the Viennese underworld with all the tact of a gunslinger, it falls to the chief British authority in Vienna, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard ), to act as his guide. Against the determination of the American, however, Calloway can only stand by and feebly offer advice as Martins wades further and further out of his depth. 

At the same time as Calloway’s sincere guidance is largely disregarded by the visiting American, the British officer also finds himself overridden by his Russian counterparts. The Soviet wing of Vienna’s international police are eager to deport Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czechoslovak national living under false documents, and Calloway’s protests in her defence go largely unheeded. Finding himself subject to the whim of more powerful and well-resourced rivals, Calloway’s predicament would have been familiar to British authorities across the globe at the time of the film’s release. Throughout the late 1940s, an exhausted British Empire had acquiesced to Soviet demands in Eastern Europe, granted independence to former colonies in India, Burma, and Ceylon, and indebted itself to the United States via the Marshall Plan. If Harry Lime is the third man of the film’s title, then Britain had become the third power, dwarfed by the economic and military might of the planet’s chief capitalist and communist states.

Despite this diminished influence, the British retain the moral prerogative in the world of The Third Man. Calloway is a stern but ultimately good-natured figure, upholding the rule of law but making exceptions wherever there is the imperative to do so, as evidenced in his kind treatment of Anna. Likewise, his Cockney enforcer, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), is an affable personality – a keen fan of Martins’ westerns and always courteous to Anna, even when duty requires him to raid her property. These values may appear out of step with the world around them, but the rarity of such ethical integrity is exactly what makes it seem so valuable. This is contrasted with the cocky self-assurance of Holly Martins, the nihilistic greed of Harry Lime, or the inhumane bureaucracy of Soviet liaison officer, Brodsky. Here, Greene’s script may be suggesting a new role for Britain within a world of ideologically opposed superpowers; neither as bold as the Americans nor as efficient as the Russians, but nevertheless a voice for decency and reason in a polarised landscape. 

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Carol Reed wasn’t the only film-maker to be questioning Britain’s identity in the immediate post-war era. Powell and Pressburger’s majestic 1946 fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, focused on the Anglo-American partnership which had emerged as one of the defining traits of the post-war West. But where that film had ended on an optimistic note of cooperation and cross-cultural romance, The Third Man strikes an altogether more bitter tone. At the film’s conclusion, Martins chooses to ignore Calloway’s parting advice to “be sensible”, and he is left alone in a foreign city with his love unrequited and a far bleaker future than when he had arrived. Perhaps it’s a suitable metaphor for the disappointment of the European post-war project, which had seen the rapid disintegration of the new United Nations into two opposed monoliths on either side of an iron curtain.

If this is a disheartening picture, it represents only the opening salvo of a Cold War which would persist for another four decades and trigger a series of protracted proxy conflicts around the globe. The role that Britain would play in this tumult was still unclear, and in many ways it remains so. As the The Third Man celebrates its seventieth birthday and the UK faces another crossroads in its relationship with the world, the film’s image of a belittled yet outward-looking nation within a chaotic world remains familiar.

Top ten films of 2018

This Sunday heralds the arrival of the 91st Academy Awards, and with it the interminable horror/delight of the annual movie awards season draws to a close. In honour of this fact, I’ve assembled a list of my ten favourite films of the last twelve months – and it’s been another fantastic year for film fans of every variety. Untested film-makers like Boots Riley and Bradley Cooper dazzled audiences with spectacular directorial debuts, while experienced masters like Lynne Ramsay and Paul Schrader returned to screens in stellar form. As a human being with responsibilities and limited time on this Earth, I can’t claim to have been comprehensive in my selection, but I nevertheless hope that I’ve distilled a varied range of the brilliant films which have graced our screens this year, and shed light on a few lesser-seen gems in the process.

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Dir. Chris McQuarrie

Far and away the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, the sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a masterclass in big-budget action cinema. Now approaching his hundredth birthday, Tom Cruise continues to astound as the world’s most charismatic crash-test dummy, but it’s the slick work of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie which sets the film apart from its competitors. The plot is a plainly absurd mixture of well-worn genre tropes and contrived techno-babble, but it works perfectly as a stage for the most awe-inspiring stuntwork and special effects since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s exciting, crowd-pleasing cinema which doesn’t require leaving your critical faculties at the door, and I can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next with his next two Mission: Impossible sequels, due for back-to-back release in 2021 and 2022.

9. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Dir. Barry Jenkins

Adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story which chronicles the black experience in modern America, in both its joy and its injustice. Following on from his stunning 2016 directorial debut, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has again demonstrated a knack for immersive cinema, pulling his audience through the frame into an authentic vision of 1970s Harlem. The characters who populate this world are compelling and full of life, while Nicholas Britell’s delicate score provides a sultry backdrop. The result is a deeply atmospheric experience which pays tribute to the human capacity for love and denounces our complicity in cruelty and prejudice. For a much more eloquent and insightful perspective on the film than I could ever produce, I heartily recommend checking out Tayler Montague’s review for Little White Lies.

8. A Star is Born

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Dir. Bradley Cooper

It’s not often that remakes are among my favourite films of the year, but there’s a reason A Star is Born is now in it’s fourth iteration. As an exploration of the music industry, its themes are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has offered a deeply affecting meditation on art, artist, and how celebrity can bring about both the making and the destruction of a person. But all this would be meaningless if the romance at the centre of the film didn’t feel utterly believable. Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are astonishing in the lead roles, disappearing into their characters and fizzling with chemistry during intimate moments as well as bombastic musical numbers. Significantly, the film’s tactful depiction of male mental health feels relevant and essential at a time when such conversations are much-needed.

7. Sorry to Bother You

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Dir. Boots Riley

In the best possible way, Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. It drifts between razor-sharp satire of modern capitalism and python-esque absurdist comedy – and often both at the same time. With shades of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is a consistently hilarious but damning critique of the consumerist rat-race in which we all live. Writer and director Boots Riley, a veteran rapper and activist but unproven film-maker, helms the film with a lightness of touch which results in an enjoyably surreal experience, despite the script’s earnest subtext. Constantly second guessing its audience, Sorry to Bother You is not the film you expect going in, nor is it the film you think it is after watching for an hour – and you won’t see anything like it this year.

6. Widows

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Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has never been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. His previous films have dealt with the Northern Irish troubles, sex addiction, and slavery, and Widows follows in a similar vein. The film confronts the issues of politics, race, gender, and violence which plague modern America, but all within an exciting and deftly executed crime thriller. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV television series, Widows masterfully follows the heist movie textbook, complete with a chalkboard planning sequence, a vehicle chase, and a last minute twist, but McQueen gives the genre a contemporary makeover. It’s probably his most accessible film yet, but that doesn’t mean it has any less to say. All this is supported by a magnificent ensemble cast including Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, and a typically aggressive score from Hans Zimmer.

5. First Reformed

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Dir. Paul Schrader

No one makes films about disturbed and reclusive men like Paul Schrader does, and First Reformed marks a welcome return to form for the seasoned film-maker. It’s a slow-moving and deeply contemplative film which stars Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small-town church who has become a husk of himself following the death of his son and collapse of his marriage. As he tries to reconcile his faith with the cruel and decaying world he sees around him, Toller finds a new and obsessive purpose upon meeting an expectant mother called Mary (no points for subtlety there, Paul). There are undeniably shades of Travis Bickle in Toller, but the quiet rural parish of First Reformed is a world away from the scum-filled streets of Taxi Driver‘s New York. More than a character study, Schrader’s script examines the role of faith and the church in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, and a discomforting sense of impending disaster appropriately permeates the whole film. What begins at an unhurried pace gradually builds in intensity until a breathless climax and the best cut-to-black ending of 2018.

4. The Favourite

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Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The reign of Queen Anne has never been a popular arena for cinema, and it feels appropriate that the idiosyncratic talents of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos should be directed towards this neglected era with The Favourite. As usual, he brings his subtly disorientating camera work and an acerbic script, but this time he’s joined by three fine leads in the form of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who bounce off each other with alacrity. It’s a subversive take on the costume drama; from the foppish absurdity of almost every male character to the liberal use of the word “cunt”, this certainly isn’t Pride and Prejudice. Although the results are generally hilarious, there are sudden and very effective moments of tragedy which are handled masterfully by Lanthimos and give real depth to characters who might otherwise seem caricatured. It’s also fantastic to see Olivia Colman receiving the roles and recognition she deserves as one of this country’s finest actors. Having followed her career since the days of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s difficult not to feel a peculiar sense of pride in watching her ascent to international stardom.

3. Cold War

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Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Probably the most difficult film of the year to find on Google, Cold War perfectly demonstrates the simple power of visual storytelling. Following the tumultuous romance of two lovers in Communist-era Poland, the film is an epic tale which spans across years and borders, as the two suitors drift passionately, and often destructively, through each others’ lives. Despite this tremendous scope, the film runs slightly less than an hour and a half in length, an admirable effort in brevity from co-writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski. Above all, he is a film-maker who understands the primacy of the image as a means of telling his story, avoiding the need for lengthy exposition or protracted dialogue. Each frame of the film is more beautiful than the last, but more impressive is how these images capture the unspoken intensity of true love and the cruel world which seeks to extinguish its spirit. The power of Pawlikowski’s approach would have been dulled  were it not for the subtle work of his two lead performers, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, who, with barely a word, communicate both the excitement and melancholy of love.

2. Roma

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Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

A loosely biographical tale of a housemaid in early 1970s Mexico City,  Roma is a study of both the personal and the political, and how these two worlds intertwine in powerful but almost imperceptible ways. The experience of a single woman, and the family for which she works, is placed against a sweeping historical backdrop of economic and social turmoil, without ever losing focus on the human drama at its core. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the central role, while the film around her is crafted with Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark finesse. Every movement of the camera is executed with a deliberate, almost ethereal omniscience, placing the viewer into an strangely voyeuristic role. As a Netflix production, Roma also represents a turning point in how major films are made and distributed; the much-maligned streaming service is knocking on Hollywood’s door.

1. You Were Never Really Here

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Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Eight years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay has again proved herself to be one of the finest film-makers in the business. Visually dazzling with a dark and uncompromising character study at its heart, You Were Never Really Here simply could not have been made by anyone else. Joaquin Phoenix is a brutish and enthralling presence as Joe, a violent enforcer barely clinging to his grip on reality, who must embark on a rescue mission into a depraved underworld he cannot begin to comprehend. Ramsay’s films have always had a preoccupation with the internal experiences of her characters, with their singular perspectives providing a stark new lens through which to see the world. As such, every shot in this film is filtered through Joe’s confused and erratic psyche, enveloping everything in a suffocating intensity. The effect is heightened by Paul Davies’ cacophonous sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s entrancing score, and it all combines into a sensory assault which is experienced as much as it is watched. It may clock in at a lean 89 minutes, but You Were Never Really Here is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about for almost a year.

The Revolution devours its children: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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The year 1968 was defined by political radicalism and civil unrest. From the May demonstrations in France to the American civil rights movement, a wave of anti-authoritarian protests and riots swept much of the world, even reaching behind the iron curtain of the USSR. In Italy, home of director Sergio Leone, almost all the country’s universities were rapidly occupied by a predominantly left-wing counter-culture movement known as “Sessantotto”. This was a period of unprecedented civil strife in the post-war world, and film-makers had never had it so good.

It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Leone, along with collaborators Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, devised another of his spaghetti westerns as a follow-up to his acclaimed “Dollars” trilogy and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in the West. This next project was to be set against the chaos of the Mexican Revolution around the year 1914. It followed a great heritage of films about the conflict, but where those had typically charted the revolutionary heroics of Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, this was to tell the story of two luckless bandits stuck in the middle.

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The result was the curiously titled Giù la testa, or “Duck your head”, which arrived in Italian cinemas in 1971. This became Duck, You Sucker for the English-language release, although later American prints carried the title A Fistful of Dynamite to capitalise on the popularity of Leone’s first western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Despite this awkwardly enforced association, Duck, You Sucker is a much harsher and more cynical film than any of Leone’s earlier work. In many ways, it feels like a conscious reflection on the director’s career thus far. Where he had previously deconstructed the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns in his “Dollars” trilogy, here he critiques the archetypes found in his own films, and how they, in turn, had influenced contemporary Hollywood. As such, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating example of self-reflection from one of history’s great film-makers, and a cruelly underappreciated work in the western canon.

With this in mind, it may come a as surprise that Leone never intended to direct Duck, You Sucker himself. He had hoped that Once Upon a Time in the West would be his final statement on the western genre, and wanted instead to focus on an adaptation of Harry Grey’s prohibition-era crime novel The Hoods (this would eventually become 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America). A series of alternative directors were approached to helm the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s long-term assistant director Giancarlo Santi. In fact, the latter was ten days into shooting when a series of on-set problems forced Leone, reluctantly, to step behind the camera himself.

Having been coerced into another Western, Leone seems to have been determined to cast the film in a very different mould from his previous efforts. The film’s opening moments make perfectly clear that this is not the light-hearted hijinks of his “Dollars” trilogy, nor the romanticised heroism of existing films on the Mexican Revolution.

Our protagonist, Rod Steiger’s hapless bandito Juan Miranda, is introduced urinating onto an ant-hill in the film’s first shot, and within moments he has robbed a stagecoach, executed a man in cold blood, and raped a terrified woman. A ruthlessly amoral character, Juan is a far cry from Tuco, the lovable rogue played by Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and this brutality sets the tone for the rest of film’s world. Instantly, Leone is asking his audience to cast aside their romanticised preconceptions of the gunslinging Old West in which his films exist.

The film shortly introduces us to its secondary protagonist, John Mallory, an expert dynamiter and veteran of the Irish struggle for independence (in one of the film’s many anachronisms, he carries a flag marked “IRA”, an organisation formed years after the story takes place). Played with an admittedly questionable accent by James Coburn, John seems to be cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s morally ambiguous “Man With No Name” archetype, but a series of flashbacks reveal a darker truth to his past. By the film’s climax, John is discovered to have murdered his best friend while escaping from British authorities in Ireland. Now finding himself embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, he continues to seek atonement for this personal betrayal committed in another, distant war.

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James Coburn and Rod Steiger as John and Juan, two bandits caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution

A tenuous friendship is formed between these two characters, but the essential contrast between them is made clear in their conflicting perspectives on the ongoing revolution. John is an idealist; in his pocket he carries a copy of The Patriotism by Russian Revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, and he appears willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Juan, on the other hand, has no such creed, nor any inclination to selflessness. His only allegiance, he insists, is to himself and his own family. Of these two perspectives, Leone seems to sympathise with the latter, who’s world view is made explicit in an impassioned speech delivered mid-way through the film:

“I know all about the revolutions and how they start! The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change. And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That’s your revolution!”

Juan’s speech is vindicated later in the most tragic of circumstances, when his entire family are slaughtered while resisting government troops. However, this is not to suggest that the film is on the side of the oppressive authorities. Indeed, emphasis is placed on the brutality dealt by government forces, with a number of lengthy sequences depicting massacres and summary executions.

Throughout all these events, the specifics of the Mexican Revolution and the various factions fighting it are only alluded to in vague terms. Rather, the conflict appears to stand for the concept of revolution in a generic sense. An opening quotation from Mao Zedong (which was removed from the American release) states that “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”

The sentiment of this quote is echoed in the brutality of the film’s violence, in stark contrast to the stylised, larger-than-life gunplay of Leone’s earlier westerns. In depicting the bloody massacre of civilians and combatants alike, the film makes clear that revolutions are never clean, nor is the violence inherent to them in any way honourable. In short, revolution is a dirty business, and anyone proposing such a thing from the comfort of an Italian university should understand the consequences.

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If Duck, You Sucker has a philosophy, it might be best described as something approaching nihilism, or at least individualism. When caught in a revolution, Leone seems to argue, the best option is to look out for number one – in other words; duck, you sucker! Indeed, Leone himself called the film a “reverse Pygmalion” story; the intellectual revolutionary (John) meets an uneducated petty criminal (Juan), and it is the simplistic, selfish world view of the latter which appears to win out.

Such a cynical interpretation of the Mexican Revolution caused controversy in Mexico itself, where the film was banned until 1979. This was hardly a proportionate response, as Leone is evidently more concerned with elaborate action set-pieces than he is with politics. A lengthy bank-robbery-turned-prison-break in the second act is one of the finest sequences of his career, accompanied by an unusually jazzy yet typically masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.

With Duck, You Sucker, then, Leone continues the cinematic finesse of his previous westerns while exploring more thematically interesting territory, with occasionally refreshing results. The stylised, almost balletic violence which characterised his earlier work is exchanged for a grittier and less glamorous atmosphere. Likewise, his characters are no longer appealing archetypes but flawed and thuggish killers.

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In the years between the first conception of Duck, You Sucker in 1968 and its release in 1971, much had changed. At the same time as the world was in turmoil, Hollywood had experienced a revolution of its own. Taking influences from European cinema, a new wave of young American auteurs were pioneering a fresh style of film-making which cast aside the taboos and stuffiness of the old Hollywood. In this vein, westerns like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969) had drawn upon Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to popularise a new form of so-called “revisionist” western. These films thrived on moral ambiguity, anti-authoritarianism, and stylised violence, and they appealed to cinema audiences living in a world of rapid social and political change.

 

Much as John Mallory is atoning for his past in Duck, You Sucker, Sergio Leone is likewise reflecting upon his own influence on world cinema. The irreverence with which he had portrayed violence and cruelty in his “Dollars” films had helped to transform not just the western genre, but the very way in which Hollywood operated. Having pioneered this new western for the counterculture age, Leone seems to ask, “Is this what you really want?”

America’s gun problem goes beyond mass shootings

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The recent mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, has renewed debate around America’s epidemic of gun violence. Anti-gun campaigners and prominent Democrat lawmakers have called for a greater regulation of so called “assault” weapons such as the semi-automatic AR-15 used by the Parkland shooter. Others, including President Donald Trump, have suggested arming teachers to counter the tide of school massacres. While both of these arguments sound like simple solutions, neither of them come close to addressing the grim reality of the country’s relationship with firearms.

The United States has the world’s highest gun homicide rate amongst high-income countries, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with over 11,000 murders or manslaughters attributed to firearms in 2014. Crucially, however, only a tiny minority of these killings take place during mass shootings.

According to FBI data, Americans are far more likely to be murdered with a handgun than the semi-automatic rifles which have formed the focus of recent debate, with handguns being used in around two-thirds of all firearm murders in 2016. Meanwhile, handguns are far cheaper and more easily accessible than their larger cousins, available for as little as $200, and few American policymakers would dare suggest this be curtailed. Nevertheless, the reality is that regulations against “assault” weapons and rifles would do little to dent America’s increasing rate of firearms murders.

These figures also ignore the fact that the vast majority of gun deaths in the United States – almost two thirds – are the result of suicide. Of the 33,594 people who were killed by firearms in 2014, 21,386 deaths were cases of suicide, according to CDC data. This represents around half of all recorded suicides in the United States, and it’s a rate which has risen consistently over the last few years.

Between 2007 and 2014, the rate of teenagers and children killing themselves with firearms increased by 60 per cent, according to evidence from CDC. Another study reported in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that the ballooning suicide rates were being driven by easy access to firearms, particularly in the more heavily armed rural areas where suicides were an average of 35 per cent higher.

Considering the weight of statistical evidence, it seems obvious that America doesn’t have a school shooting problem, or a rifle problem – it has a gun problem. Armed teachers would have done little to prevent the deaths of 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas last year, and a ban on assault weapons would not have saved the thousands of people murdered by handguns, nor the tens of thousands who took their own lives.

Anti-gun campaigners face a formidable challenge ahead, as the National Rifle Association wield all their political might (including a $3m lobbying budget) to oppose even the most forgiving firearms regulations. However, if any progress is to be made in reducing America’s plague of gun violence, the true scale of the problem must first be recognised.

The 2018 clued-down Movie Awards

Say what you like about the last year, but it’s been a marvellous time for movies. Whether you’re into blockbusters, art house, or anything in between, there’s been something for every film fan, and it feels unfair to single out any one film or film-maker for praise – but that’s why I’m here. Below you will find my nominees and winners for the best achievements in film of 2017/18.

Best Film

Nominated

Call Me By Your Name

John Wick: Chapter 2

The Death of Stalin

Get Out

Good Time

The Shape of Water

Lady Bird

Paddington 2

Phantom Thread

Winner

Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a miraculous cinematic achievement, a perfectly executed tour-de-force of visual storytelling. Its technical triumph in recreating the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk is matched only by its narrative ambition, weaving together three competing perspectives from the land, sea, and air. Nolan makes no effort to clumsily tackle the moral or political implications of the conflict, only the senseless terror of its experience, and the result is a heart-pounding deconstruction of heroism, tragedy, and triumph in the face of defeat.

Best Director

Nominated

Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

Winner

Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water

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This year’s selection of directors represent a refreshingly diverse mix of voices and artistic ambitions, and any one would be a worthy winner. Nevertheless, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a technically stunning and emotionally uplifting masterwork which could only have spawned from the brilliant, demented brain of this Mexican auteur. Del Toro manages to weave together elements of thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and romance into a single, spellbinding tale of tolerance in the face of prejudice.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Nominated

Vicky Krieps – Phantom Thread

Soarise Ronan – Lady Bird

Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water

Meryl Streep – The Post

Winner

Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Frances McDormand has never been known for playing your typical big-screen heroines. Before now, she was probably best known as the kind hearted and heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), for which she won her first Academy Award. Now, over two decades later, she has at least matched that performance with an wholly different but no less affecting role. As grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, McDormand provides a nuanced portrait of a physically and emotionally aggressive woman, yet she manages to imbue her performance with a hint of repressed vulnerability beneath the surface. The result is a wholly believable and multi-layered rendering of a person’s journey through loss, anger, and forgiveness.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Nominated

Daniel Day Lewis – Phantom Thread

Chris Kaluuya – Get Out

Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Robert Pattinson – Good Time

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The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time was entirely overlooked by most major awards bodies this year, perhaps unsurprisingly for a film so unashamedly rough around the edges. Nevertheless, it’s an unusual and aggressively compelling crime-caper, thanks in large part to the efforts of Robert Pattinson. He stars at the centre of the film as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a morally unscrupulous bank-robber determined to show his disabled brother a “good time”. It’s a restless performance which demands attention, particularly as the camera lens pushes into insistent close-ups to capture every twitch of a muscle or bead of sweat. The London-born actor entirely disappears into the part of a New York lowlife, and it’s exciting to see the bloke from the Twilight films continue to prove himself as a compelling lead performer.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Adam Driver – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Craig – Logan Lucky

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Michael Stahlberg – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Hugh Grant – Paddington 2

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Having long been typecast into bumbling romantic leads, Hugh Grant is an actor of underestimated versatility. As the villainous Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, he is finally given the opportunity to flex his theatrical muscles in a delightfully camp romp across a plethora of accents, prosthetic disguises, and song-and-dance numbers. Paddington 2 wasn’t eligible for this year’s Oscars, having only arrived into American cinemas in early 2018, but here’s hoping that Hugh Grant receives the recognition he deserves in next year’s ceremony.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird

Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound

Allison Janney – I, Tonya

Winner

Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread

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A veteran of stage and television, Lesley Manville is nonetheless a remarkable cinematic presence, even when going to-to-toe with the fearsome Daniel Day Lewis. In Phantom Thread, she does just that in the role of Cyril Woodcock, sister to the obstinate Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis) and matriarch of the haute couture House of Woodcock. She regularly steals the scene from her venerable co-star, as their ambiguous relationship plays out with all its affection and conflict. Every put-down and backhanded compliment is delivered with satisfying bite, but this acerbic façade is only part of the story. Indeed, Manville takes what could have been predictable old crone and develops her into something much more interesting and sympathetic. It’s a delicate performance which reveals more upon repeat viewings, as the true nature of Cyril’s intentions become less transparent.

Best Original Score

Nominated

Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk

John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Lopatin – Good Time

Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water

Winner

Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread

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Arguably better known as the lead guitarist and co-songwriter for Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood’s contribution to the world of film has been every bit as essential as to that of rock music. A long-term collaborator of director Paul Thomas Anderson, Greenwood was previously robbed of an Oscar nod for his work on There Will Be Blood (2007). Fortunately, this is no consolation prize; his score for Phantom Thread is his best work yet. Managing to be both whimsical and sinister at the same time, the music provides almost every scene with a heft and intensity that never feels intrusive. It’s a magnificent, sweeping evocation of Bernard Hermmann’s best work, cementing Greenwood and Anderson as one of cinema’s great director/composer partnerships.

Best Cinematography

Nominated

Hoyte Van Hoytema – Dunkirk

Sean Price Williams – Good Time

Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour

Rachel Morrison – Mudbound

Winner

Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049

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I’m not sure if Blade Runner 2049 really is the best achievement in cinematography from the last year – after all, Dunkirk did stick an IMAX camera onto a Spitfire – but this award still goes to Roger Deakins, more for his incredible body of work than any single film. Probably the greatest living cinematographer, Deakins lends each of his films a picture-postcard quality, from the snow-swept vistas of Fargo to the intimate brutality of Sicario. Characteristically, every shot of Blade Runner 2049 is a masterclass in framing, colour, and lighting, with an expertise that goes beyond just looking pretty and weaves itself into the fabric of the storytelling.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominated

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water

Winner

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career writing complex, languorous character studies; from a Californian oil magnate at the turn of the century to a porn star in late-70s Los Angeles. Phantom Thread delivers a story in a similar mould, dropping the audience into a dizzying slice of 1950s London and its lavish haute couture scene. What begins as a familiar study of artist and muse is quickly subverted into a richly rewarding tale of love, passion, and control. While asking profound questions about the very nature of human intimacy, the script also manages to feature more laugh-out-loud zingers than most comedies. Phantom Thread cements Anderson’s place as one of the finest writer/directors currently working in American cinema.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated

Paul King and Simon Farnaby – Paddington 2

Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows – The Death of Stalin

Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green – Logan

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist

Winner

James Ivory – Call Me By Your Name

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Adapted from the novel by André Aciman, James Ivory’s screenplay for Call Me By Your Name is an affecting, delicate, and occasionally painful portrait of a fleeting summer romance. In a story where the characters rarely have the words for what they truly feel, Ivory manages to communicate their innermost desires and conflicts. It articulates the confusing and overwhelming sensation of being in love, and the inevitable agony of knowing that it must come to an end. The power of the script lies in its abstraction, functioning as both an intimate study of gay discovery and sexuality, and a universal tale of love, passion, and heartbreak.

Journey’s End Review

A taut and respectful adaptation of RC Sherriff’s iconic play, Journey’s End offers a conventional but deeply moving portrait of the First World War and its corrosive impact on the human soul

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In 1928, when Journey’s End was first performed in London’s West End, the wounds of the First World War were still festering in British society. Written by war veteran RC Sherriff, the play horrified contemporary theatre-goers with an uncompromising portrayal of a British officer’s dugout in the Spring of 1918. Sherriff’s dispiriting account has continued to shape the popular understanding of the war nine decades later, an immense cultural legacy which has been buttressed through the years by plethora of cinematic adaptations, most notably Jack Gold’s 1976 film Aces High. This latest effort, from Suite Française director Saul Dibb, arrives as part of the official centenary commemorations of the First World War, but the solemn power of Sherriff’s anti-war drama remains potent.

From the film’s opening moments, Dibb does an admirable job of expanding the play from the three stage walls for which it was written. The action often moves beyond the dugout and into the trenches outside, where the squalor of everyday life is rendered with impressive and uncomfortable detail. Events usually consigned off-stage, such as a suicidal raid on the German trench line, are depicted with all the visceral carnage that one expects of a modern war film.

Despite this expanded scope, the film maintains a sense of the intense claustrophobia that was integral to Sherriff’s vision. To this end, the camera often stays fixed in extreme close-up, with individual moustache hairs bristling towards the lens as background details fall into haze. There are no sweeping vistas of troops marching across no-man’s-land, as the focus remains wisely fixed on a small cast of characters and their emotional, rather than physical, turmoil.

Unsurprisingly, then, the film is dialogue heavy and thus relies greatly on its central performers. Sam Claflin stars as Captain Stanhope, a decorated company commander who has fallen into alcoholism and depression after three years in the trenches. Claflin’s interpretation of the role which launched Laurence Olivier’s career is adequate, if unsubtle. Full of quivering rage, he never quite captures the broiling, inner turbulence of his character, meaning that Stanhope’s emotional collapse in the latter portion of the film fails to elicit the catharsis it should.

More inspired casting is found in the form of Paul Bettany as Lieutenant Osborne, Stanhope’s second-in-command and emotional confidante. Affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle’ by the other officers, Osborne acts as a sort of sage to the rest of the men, helping them to maintain their humanity whilst all around are losing theirs. Likewise, Asa Butterfield is impeccably pitched as Lieutenant Raleigh, a baby-faced volunteer who quickly discovers war to be less exciting than he had envisioned. And although occupying a more limited role, Stephen Graham provides a similarly authentic presence as Lieutenant Trotter, an outwardly cheerful officer whose working-class origins have been maintained from the play whilst shifting his accent from London to Merseyside.

It is the interplay between these characters which serves as the core of the film, offering a poignant meditation on the relationships that form between men amidst the harshest of circumstances, in both their warmth and their tragedy. This bleak atmosphere is supported by a thronging, melancholic score from composer Natalie Holt, which creates an appropriately ominous soundscape.

The fiercely respectful tone of Journey’s End is undeniably moving, but ultimately offers little that hasn’t been seen in the last hundred years of World War One films. The script, meanwhile, isn’t shy about perpetuating the same ‘lions-led-by-donkeys’ clichés previously found in everything from All Quite in the Western Front to Blackadder Goes Forth. Nevertheless, it offers a powerfully intimate perspective on a period which has long been lost to living memory, and serves as a timely elegy to the human costs of war.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

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A mature yet blackly comic study of personal trauma in middle-America

The title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri places the film within an oddly specific setting, but this emphasis might be misleading. Although the story is confined within the small, fictional town of Ebbing, the events which unfold seem to stand for American society as a whole – and it is not a flattering picture. Depicting a community where ugly tensions simmer beneath a benign exterior, writer and director Martin McDonagh clearly has something to say about the rage and disharmony which has come to characterise the modern United States. The film offers no easy answers to the broken society which it observes, but endeavours to ask where all this anger has come from – and how we might find our way back.

The third film from the British-Irish film-maker, Three Billboards is McDonagh’s most mature and rewarding work yet. Anyone familiar with his previous comedy-dramas, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, will be well acquainted with his acerbic and often profane wit, but this film also relies on a weighty sense of tragedy. Indeed, the story functions primarily as a study of personal trauma, and how far we allow it to define ourselves and our communities. Almost every character within Ebbing is afflicted with their own, private tragedy, and none more so than Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes.

The tough and abrasive Mildred is McDormand’s meatiest role since her Oscar-winning turn in the Coen brother’s 1996 crime-caper, Fargo. With a permanent scowl and a John Wayne swagger, Mildred always cuts a fearsome presence, but McDormand also inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability beneath the harsh exterior. The result is a multi-faceted performance which feels as authentically lived-in as her battered blue overalls.

McDormand inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability

Opposite McDormand, Woody Harrelson is routinely excellent as local Sheriff Bill Willoughby, but Sam Rockwell captivates as his moronic deputy, officer Jason Dixon. An utterly reprehensible and unscrupulous personality, Dixon represents all that is wrong with American law enforcement, yet Rockwell imbues his performance with a surprising degree of humanity. In many ways, Dixon feels like the emotional heart of the film; angry, morally confused, but ultimately a product of his environment.

In this way, McDonagh’s script refuses to allow any of its players to revert to cliché or predictability. Ebbing is a community populated by characters who are continually one-step ahead of the audience’s expectations. It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities and shades of grey, and it allows the drama to move into satisfyingly unexpected territory. In refusing to accommodate a binary world of heroes and villains, Three Billboards makes a case for the value of empathy and understanding over anger and cynicism.

It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities

Fortunately, despite the film’s philosophical aspirations, Three Billboards also finds time to be very funny. The ease with which McDonagh moves between hilarity and heartbreak is something to behold, much thanks to the phenomenal range of McDormand and Rockwell. The blackly comic tone never feels like a betrayal of the film’s sombre subject matter, but a natural extension of Ebbing’s peculiar world. Nevertheless, Ebbing represents more than an idiosyncratic setting – it stands for all the communities which live in fear and resentment of one another, where violence and corruption is accepted as a matter of fact. These three billboards might as well be outside anywhere.

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