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Joseph Cotten: Master of moods

There was often a sadness about Joseph Cotten, and it was one of his most attractive qualities as an actor. Tall, handsome, usually dressed with quiet style, he was rarely the man of action, and he got the girl only in his forgotten pictures.

The indelible memory of him comes from the great last shot of "The Third Man" (1949), where after the funeral he waits by the side of the road for the girl to catch up with him, hoping that perhaps now she can bury her memories and accept his love. But she keeps right on walking, past him and past the camera, and he stands where he was, lights a cigarette, and throws away the match with sad resignation.

Cotten worked in movies for 40 years, but he will be remembered for four films he made in the 1940s, three of them often mentioned on lists of the best films of all time--the same three that also involved his lifelong friend Orson Welles. They are "Citizen Kane" (1941), "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) and "The Third Man" (1949). The first two were directed by Welles, and the third, by Carol Reed, was dominated by the absence of Welles, who doesn't appear until a shot late in the film that has become known as the most famous entrance in the movies.

In "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man," Cotten played the best friend of the Welles character. In both stories, Welles is seen as unworthy of friendship. In "Kane," Cotten was Jed Leland, as an old college chum who had known Charles Foster Kane since adolescence, and been thrown out of all the best schools with him. Leland, who becomes the drama critic of Kane's New York Examiner and later moves to a Chicago paper after a falling-out with the boss, figures in some of the film's best scenes. On an early morning after Kane's defeat at the polls, Leland tries to tell him he can't always have his own way. On another late night, after Susan Alexander Kane's disastrous operatic debut, Leland gets drunk rather than finish a negative review. And as an old man in a wheelchair, he remembers "Charlie Kane" with rueful admiration.

There is a scene in the movie where Cotten has hardly any dialog. Kane has thrown a party for the Examiner staff in the newspaper offices, with champagne, dancing girls, and a band. As the band plays and Kane dances with the girls, Cotten has a closeup in which his face reflects his deepest doubts about his old friend. He looks angry, and wounded, and it is the combination of these feelings that is the key to his character: It's not simply that Kane is unworthy--it's that he let Jed Leland down.

"Kane" was hailed as a masterpiece, and the whole Welles crowd, the Mercury Theater troupe, shared in the reflected glory. Welles chose not to appear in his next film, and cast Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, a young inventor, in "The Magnificent Ambersons." Eugene falls in love with Isabel Amberson, the daughter of the grand family that is the aristocracy of their Indiana city, but he is not quite good enough for them, although by the end of the film he is a millionaire and their glory has faded. Even then, a rich widower, he is barred from the woman he loves by her son, a snob.

Cotten's most effective scenes in the movie are those in which he realizes that he will lose the great love of his life, and that his success will be no consolation. There is another scene, part of a famous montage intended to recreate the more genteel lives of the wealthy in the 19th century, in which Cotten is seen before a mirror in a variety of fashionable costumes. He is able to carry the scene off without seeming vain or silly, perhaps because of a natural assurance that allowed him to dress and move as if he had a right to be elegant. (He was not above emphasizing this trait, and was famous for having his suit jackets made without side pockets, for a sleeker profile.)

After the two great Welles pictures (and a lesser one, "Journey into Fear" (1943) which he co-wrote), Cotten worked for Hitchcock in a role which might have pointed his career in a different direction, but did not. In "Shadow of a Doubt" (also 1943), he played the handsome uncle of a small-town girl (Teresa Wright), who arrives for a visit and is gradually revealed to be a murderer on the run. Cotten found just the right balance of the sinister and the charming in the role, but in most of his other 1940s movies it was charm that the producers wanted, and he obliged.

It was not until 1949 that he made another great picture, "The Third Man," playing Holly Martins, a writer of pulp Westerns who is summoned to postwar Vienna by an old friend, Harry Lime (Welles). The film was written by Graham Greene, who reflected the Cold War in the divided sections of the bombed-out city; American, French, British and Russian sectors made life difficult for a refugee like the young woman played by Alida Valli. She was in love with Lime, who is seemingly killed just as Cotten arrives in Vienna. Cotten falls in love with her, but she is loyal to Lime, even as his evil nature is revealed (his black-market penicillin has killed innocent children).

One of Cotten's best moments is in a scene in Lime's old apartment, now occupied by the woman. Holly is a little drunk and rueful that somehow his appeal is not quite the equal of Lime's, and never will be, even though Lime is dead. Shortly after, in the famous shot where the cat crushes against the shoes in a doorway, Holly sees Lime alive. And then they meet at an amusement park, in the famous scene where Harry subtly threatens Holly with death, and then delivers the immortal "cuckoo clock" speech. ("In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.")

The climax of the movie, one of the most visually dramatic chase scenes in movie history, has Martens chasing Lime through the sewers of Vienna. And then comes Harry's second, "real," burial, and the sad scene by the roadside as the girl walks past without even looking at him.

I have seen all four of these films many, many times; "Kane" and "The Third Man" at least 50 times apiece. Their rhythms are a part of my life memories. And so Joseph Cotten is a part, too. He worked on through the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, sometimes in good films, more often in forgettable ones. Often there was the sadness, and it added a special note even to lesser material; he created characters who were aware life could have worked out better for them, if only fate had not intervened--fate, or a more powerful person who steamrollered past while they were still making up their minds.

Was that person, in Cotten's life, Orson Welles? I have no way of knowing. All I can say is that in the films where Cotten made an indelible impression, the films he will be remembered for, it is as the betrayed friend, the good man who is not quite strong enough. In "Citizen Kane," as an old man remembering Jane, his character says this line: "I was his oldest friend. As far as I was concerned, he behaved like a swine. Not that Charlie ever was brutal. He just did brutal things. Maybe I wasn't his friend. If I wasn't, he never had one. Maybe I was what nowadays you call a stooge."

Maybe he was. And yet there is that sad romantic nobility, that quality of the good man who is too trusting, too hopeful, too naive for the rough purposes of the cruel 20th century. A quality that makes him seem more a hero than a stooge.

When Cotten died this week, Jed Leland died with him. And Eugene Morgan. And Holly Martens. I'll miss Holly the most, Holly who says "Is that all you say when a man dies? How inconvenient?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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