The Third Man
Rick Heinrichs: 5 Movies That Had a Major Impact on Me
Rick Heinrichs
Rick Heinrichs
Production Designer

Rick Heinrichs set a high bar right from the start of his career: Some of his earliest projects saw him working as an animator, production designer and producer on the films of visionary director Tim Burton. They have made 15 movies together in total, including Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Frankenweenie, Big Eyes, and Dumbo. For their 1999 collaboration, Sleepy Hollow, Heinrichs won the Oscar for Best Art Direction (now called Best Production Design), shared with set decorator Peter Young.

Heinrichs has since earned two more Oscar nominations, one for 2004's A Series of Unfortunate Events and another for 2006's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Always pushing himself to do increasingly innovative and visually evocative work, he journeyed to a galaxy far, far away for the production design of 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi and found a new collaborator in the filmmaker Rian Johnson. The two have reteamed for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which sees Daniel Craig's Detective Benoit Blanc set out to solve another whodunit.

"I recognize that my personal group of inspirational films — those that engaged me the most when I was young and young-ish, the ones that particularly mainlined into my developing sense of self and growing awareness of the narrative arts at an age when my brain was rapidly absorbing and sorting the zeitgeist (political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the Beatles) and what went before (which, for me, were '50s Mad paperbacks and the first half century of Hollywood), don't necessarily travel well," Heinrichs says. "Oh, some of them are on all-time best lists all right. It's just that there are so many sublime movies that have been made in the last century that I've loved and learned from. This list isn’t necessarily about them."

"It's about the ones that seared themselves into my brain as a youngster when I first saw them on my parents B & W Zenith TV, weekday afternoons before dinner (mostly on The Million Dollar Movie show), and then again in my college years projected on the big screen, often at the Brattle Street Theater in Cambridge. I didn't think yet in terms of, 'Oh, I want to do that for a living,' certainly not to be an art director or production designer, whatever those things were. I just wanted to live in the experience these tales spun for me," explains the production designer. "They expanded the sense of life's possibilities, and lit a smoldering fire inside me."

Below, he shares with A.frame the five films that most inspired him.

"It turns out this is a list of five films that were all made within 16 years of each other in the '30s and the '40s. One is in color and the rest are in 'glorious' black and white — the quote marks are used to note that frequent almost pleading descriptor, like saying 'I know it's black and white, kids, but give it a chance!' Screw that, the four here are gloriously beautiful films whose visual quality would distinctly suffer in Technicolor. No need to apologize that anything's missing!"

1
The Mascot
1933
The Mascot

Directed by: Ladislas Starevich

This is stop-motion of a seminal and uniquely sophisticated kind, not even considering its production early in the history of cinema. In the same year that Willis O'Brien was animating a puppet King Kong as an effect in that live-action feature, Ladislas Starevich was deploying his pioneering experience with stop-motion animation over two decades to produce this gem.

The Mascot has a sentimental bookend structure involving a sick girl and her stuffed animal puppy, but the animated heart of the film in which the dog comes alive to go out into the asphalt jungle of the city to procure an orange for his mistress is so full of humor and action with exciting peril, is presented with such an exquisite eye for design detail and lived-in environments, and produced in such a perfect creative storm of craftsmanship and delicate discipline, that Starevich's extraordinary vision and filmmaking style completely immerse the audience in the wonderfully wicked world of his imagination.

2
Pinocchio
1940
Pinocchio
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Directed by: Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske

In a year that has seen the release of two different versions of Pinocchio (and an additional one in 2019), it's pretty clear that there is something deeply compelling about the story of something inanimate coming to life. Stories like Frankenstein and The Golem are steeped in horror and taboo subject matter, so I suppose there is something about crossing the line of the natural world into the fantastical or phantasmagorical that fascinates. Collodi's episodic story reads like a tale from the Brothers Grimm, who wrote of transgression, damnation and retribution in a way that could meaningfully be absorbed by younger minds. This Pinocchio remains a powerful cautionary fable about innocence in the wicked world, and what it takes to become a human being in it.

I saw the original film in the theater in one of it's seven-year rotations out of the Disney vault (a release schedule designed to protect against the over-saturation of their titles, a quaint practice long before people could use a VHS player to babysit their kids). To those who would diss the original animated film for being Disney-fied, I would say that's no slam! Disney and his remarkable team of artists, animators, story folk, and all the supporting animation crafts involved, took a conceptually brilliant, but raw challenging book of difficult characters, plot lines and settings and turned it into 88 minutes of original and sublime storytelling that was on a scale of cinematic ambition that took its audience to an imagined world unlike anything seen before, in live action or animation. From the original concept art of Gustaf Tenggren, Albert Hurter, and T. Hee, to the animation skills of Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball and Milt Kahl, as well as so many others, it was clear that Walt Disney was setting a very high standard of filmmaking for his team. I know now that he persisted through many unsuccessful iterations of the characters and story before hitting upon the right balance of narrative and character elements, and I’m inspired to know that the real definition of a visionary is one who literally sees beyond the horizon.

3
Double Indemnity
1944
Double Indemnity
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Directed by: Billy Wilder | Production Design by: David S. Hall

Film noir wasn't a term that really took hold in American Cinema until the 1970s, but it does refer mostly to crime dramas made in Hollywood in the '40s and '50s. I just thought they were interesting 'adult' drama films that were clever and looked really cool. These stories that presented the cynical side of human nature and weren't beholden to screwball humor or happy endings made the most of black-and-white photography to impart a sense of foreshadowing or simply a seamy, gritty feel to the environments. As a result, the films felt more true to what they were about and that authenticity in turn gave great power to the cinematic telling. That look is derived from German Expressionism, the film genre that immerses the audience visually in the psychological drama as a means to explore human emotions like desire and passion, hubris and cunning, sorrow, regret and frailty.

Double Indemnity is about a smart man who lets passionate desire overwhelm his better sense, drawing him with eyes wide open into a sordid web of a lover's intrigue and the murder she embroils him in. He has transformed by the end of the film from confidant, successful, even worldly and full of himself to a damned, doomed man, and the irony of his fall is lost least of all upon himself. The perilous journey he is on is commented on visually through the sets and the lighting. The interiors seem to close about him like a trap — even the shadow of the blinds that hold back the bright Southern California sun (or the truth of the full light of day), seem to fit him for a prison cell.

The fact that Billy Wilder chose Fred MacMurray was odd to me since I knew him as the kindly concerned Dad from My Three Sons, but of course he played the part of Walter Neff, insurance salesman, long before that TV show. Edward G. Robinson also seemed like an odd choice to me, having seen Little Caesar — here he was as the good guy. Ah, that's why they’re actors, I realized!

4
Great Expectations
1946
Great Expectations
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Directed by: David Lean | Production Design by: John Bryan

There are many examples of great British cinema from the mid-twentieth century, and David Lean directed an inordinate number of them. But, before I knew all that, I came upon this wonderful film one afternoon after school on our black-and-white TV. Having read the book, I was aware of the trimming of story and character that he did to sustain a feature length film, and I think this may have been the earliest I was aware of the difference between reading a story and experiencing a director's interpretation of that story. Dickens prose overflows with a prodigious number of characters and storylines, all of which he manages to make feel whole and to a purpose on the page. Perhaps because of this, his work would make great episodic streaming TV in which the screenplay could be allowed to honor much more of the world Dickens created.

However, the focus that a feature film can bring to bear on his most important storyline told with concisely gorgeous black-and-white imagery was my takeaway from Lean's Great Expectations. From the lonely, bleak moors that a desperate convict stalks to the fantastically macabre scene of Miss Havisham's icily bitter, shut-in life, and the cruelty with which she treats Pip — naif that he is — every frame is composed like a painting. This could also be the first time I started to notice the 'egg' of compositional focus in the cinematographers work, which I've since noticed employed by master painters and photographers. When I see it consistently used in a film, like say Danny Boyle's Millions, I feel I'm in the visual hands of someone in control of their art. I know, I know: 'visual hands'. And yet it works!

5
The Third Man
1949
The Third Man
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Directed by: Carol Reed | Set Decoration by: Dario Simoni

One of my favorite films of all time. I never tire of seeing it again. It is a superb story of human greed and duplicity, of power and charisma, of character flaws and weakness, and of the stubbornness of the human heart. This tale of the casual loss of human life and the surprising resurrection of it, with characters of vastly different nationality and personality, all caught up in a singular place at a singular time, post-war Vienna, is unlike any film story I've ever experienced. The fact that it is set in the real Vienna of that period, a city severely demolished by war and divided into quadrants of oversight by the individual nations of the Allied victory, and whose alliance seems to be slipping inexorably into the vortex of cold war rivalry, gives an immediacy and truthfulness to the background of a story of friendship, love and betrayal.

No doubt there were many sets created for the film, but the location shooting of the key scenes is so pervasive, and the visual drama and metaphorical deployment of the mountains of stone, brick and debris as well as the underworld of the sewer, lit and shot so expressively (it is now considered a film noir masterpiece), is so stark and stunning that there is no pulling the elements apart for study. They are a whole experience that keeps the viewer riveted to their seat. The breathtaking turn of Welles' character in the audience's first three minutes of meeting him in person, from jolly good buddy to half-lidded reptile murderer to charismatic, concerned friend with one of cinema’s most funny and chilling anecdotes ('You know what the fellow said…'), crystallizes in that brief period not only everything you need to know about Harry Lime, but also why Anna is fatally attracted to him. And this all happens within one rotation of an enormous ferris wheel in the city amusement park. This is an elevated sort of storytelling that only the best of cinema can do.

The film remains unwaveringly true to itself all the way to the end, in an achievement of art direction (it's a location, true, but it's still an environmental choice that they made). An earlier scene of Anna walking towards camera away from the first funeral is reprised here as she walks from the second funeral for what seems like an overly long take, in a compositional analog to the first time we see it. Holly in all his passive adoration of her forms one of the 'legs' of the composition in the foreground. The audience is left to hope as she approaches him that there will be at least some form of connection and closure for his unrequitedness. But no, Anna sweeps by Holly like a cold breeze, disdaining any awareness of him, and likewise sweeps by the camera so that the audience can feel the bitter pain she has wrapped herself in. The ending was controversial for director Carol Reed. Both the screenwriter Graham Greene and the producer David O. Selznick wanted a happier ending but time proved the director right. As the musical score zithers up at that moment, you feel your heart break as well, in the most satisfyingly cinematic way possible.

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