Sir Carol Reed was born on 30th December 1906 in London. He began work as an actor, and then worked for the author Edgar Wallace, adapting his works to the stage and screen. His first real job in the film industry was at Ealing Studios, working as assistant to director Basil Dean. In 1935 he directed his first film, Midshipman Easy, a minor adventure about some sailors who rescue a girl from pirates.

Here is a list of the films he directed:

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

As is clear from this list, he was very prolific, particularly during the 30s and 40s. He quickly became a well-known director, and was generally acknowledged as quite good, but certainly not one of the best. Several of his early works are certainly good films – Laburnam Grove, a light comedy about a forger; The Stars Look Down, a moving drama about miners’ lives; Night Train to Munich, a thriller about a British spy on a German train; Kipps, a comedy about a draper who tries to crash society; The Way Ahead, a war propaganda film – all these are very enjoyable and well-acted, but there is nothing notable about the direction. Carol Reed has clearly contributed to the success and sharpness of these films, but no more than any other reasonable British director at the time.

The first signs of Carol Reed’s true greatness appeared in The True Glory, a wartime documentary, consisting of various newsreels edited and compiled together. Carol Reed co-directed it with Garson Kanin, an american. Although Reed clearly did not control the shooting of the film, the editing and arrangement of compilation is strikingly powerful, hinting at Reed’s potential.

Odd Man Out was Carol Reed’s first real masterpiece. It is a crime drama set in Northern Ireland, starring James Mason as an IRA member, who has been wounded and is trying to evade the police. It is quite a moving story, and is well-acted, but what really makes it stand out is the truly original direction. Carol Reed continually changes the way the camera is angled, rotating it as much as 45 degrees from the horizontal. This technique, though simple is stunningly effective, and had never really been used before, and has not been used much since. Depending on the angle used, Reed manages to increase the tension, strengthen the emotions, shock the audience or even add some humour.

Odd Man Out was followed by another even greater masterpiece, The Fallen Idol. A small boy, played by Bobby Henrey thinks he has witnessed a murder committed by his friend the butler, played by Ralph Richardson. The acting, even by the boy, is absolutely superb, and the script, by Graham Greene is very funny. But again, what makes it truly great are the camera angles, notably on the stairs and in the street at night. In terms of small-scale, light comedy, this is perfect.

Carol Reed’s final and greatest masterpiece is of course, The Third Man. Set in post-war Vienna, Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotton is looking for his friend Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. This is certainly one of the greatest films ever. Not only does it have Carol Reed’s direction at its very best – insane, shocking camera angles, brilliant contrast between light and dark – but it has Graham Greene’s precise and very witty script, Anton Karas’s resounding and memorable zither playing throughout, and Orson Welles’s perfectly judged performance. This all culminates in what is, in my opinion, the most perfect scene in the whole history of cinema, when Orson Welles, standing in a doorway, is lit up, just for 5 seconds by the light from a window. The camera is close-up on his face, heavily tilted. His face is brightly lit, the rest of him is dark. The zither music, until now quiet, loudly starts playing the main theme tune. Orson Welles raises one eyebrow at Joseph Cotton, and gives a very slight, very wry, smile. And then the light goes out.

After these three masterpieces, Carol Reed’s direction suddenly deteriorated. Some of his later films are enjoyable - A Kid for Two Farthings is another amusing light comedy, and Trapeze shows a few of his directorial touches – but they are certainly not masterpieces. His failure was complete, when he was fired while filming the disastrous remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. After that his films got even worse. The Running Man is boring and flatly directed, and Oliver!, though it may be an acceptable musical, is a shocking contrast with his true masterpieces.

Carol Reed died on 25th April, 1976. He had been twice married, first to Diana Wynward, a stage actress who starred in Kipps, and then to Penelope Dudley-Ward. He was knighted in 1952. Nowadays he is often overlooked, his masterpieces put down to his collaborators and luck. But this is unfair. He may have declined early on, but only a truly great director could have created The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, films which are as perfect as any films ever have been.