Carol Reed was born into a family with some of the best artistic/theatrical credentials of any film director who ever lived. His father was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917), the leading actor of his day and, among many other credits, the stage's first Henry Higgins, and his mother was Tree's mistress, May Pinney Reed. Born in London, Carol Reed was educated at Kings School, Canterbury, just slightly ahead of his fellow future filmmaker Michael Powell. Reed's father passed away when he was ten years old, leaving his mother to raise him with help from a small bequest. He was drawn to the theater from an early age and wanted to become an actor, but his mother had little confidence in his ability to earn a living in that field, and encouraged him to try farming.
Reed made his stage debut at age 17 as a member of Sybil Thorndike's theater company, and at 20, joined Edgar Wallace's company, where he advised the author on the adaptations of his books into plays and also served as a stage manager as well as an actor. Reed turned to movies in the early '30s, joining Associated British Talking Pictures in 1932 as a dialogue director and assistant to the studio's founder, director/producer Basil Dean. Reed made the jump to the director's chair in 1935, initially in association with Robert Wyler on It Happened in Paris. This period in Reed's career, characterized by low-budget productions, saw him making as many as three feature films a year. These were successful films, and often stood out for what style Reed was able to manifest in them, beginning with the comedy Laburnum Grove (1936). He also directed Talk of the Devil (1936); the film was co-written by Reed and future director Anthony Kimmins (who collaborated on Reed's first five movies). Reed's most distinguished early movie was The Stars Look Down (1939), starring Michael Redgrave, a drama dealing with the plight of impoverished Welsh coal miners. The film that put Reed on the map as a popular stylist was Night Train to Munich (1940). Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, the future writer/director/producer team, it was a follow-up to their script for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938).
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Reed joined the British army's film unit, where he made a series of documentaries intended as acclimation and propaganda for new recruits, and made the best full-length feature of the war dealing with British infantrymen, The Way Ahead (1944), co-authored by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov. It was immediately after the war that Reed ascended to the front rank of British filmmakers with Odd Man Out (1947). This coincided with his becoming his own producer, and for the next four years, everything he touched as a director turned to gold. Odd Man Out was a beautifully complex psychological thriller that overcame its grim subject to become a critical and box-office success. Along with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, and Launder and Gilliat, Reed was part of that generation of British filmmakers whose movies transformed the British film industry, for a time, into a serious rival to Hollywood.
Reed's next movie, The Fallen Idol (1948), based on the work of author Graham Greene, told the story of a boy trying desperately to hide the guilt of his friend, a butler suspected of killing his wife. It was a deeply atmospheric film, filled with haunting emotional resonances, and was a critical and box-office success. And then came The Third Man (1949), based on Greene's novella and produced jointly in association with Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick. A manhunt set amid the corruption and misery of postwar Vienna, the movie transcended the thriller genre, partly through a quintet of brilliant performances by Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and Bernard Lee, as well as Robert Krasker's atmospheric photography, and, overall, a uniquely wry sense of humor, courtesy of Reed, who set the tone for the entire movie not only as a director but also through his selection of local Viennese zither player Anton Karas to provide the music for the score. The Third Man became the most enduringly popular of all postwar British thrillers, one of the most widely remembered and quoted movies in history, and it made several fortunes. Apart from generating millions of dollars around the world, it turned Alida Valli into an international star and made Karas into an internationally renowned virtuoso overnight. Ironically, it even proved as central to the reputation of Orson Welles as any of the movies that Welles directed himself.
The Third Man proved a high point in Reed's career. His next two movies, Outcast of the Islands (1952) and The Man Between (1953) -- the latter a topical story set in Berlin during the Cold War that ran into script and production problems -- were disappointments. However, between the two, Reed was awarded a knighthood, the first time such an honor had been granted to a movie director. In 1955, he made the jump to color photography with the gentle fable A Kid for Two Farthings; it was well received and, indeed, remains one of the most popular children's films of its era that was not made by Disney. His next movie, Trapeze (1956), was a complete surprise; an Anglo-American production by the company owned by its star, Burt Lancaster, it was also Reed's first in Cinemascope, and it was a hit, but it was also devoid of any of the personal touches that had been found in Reed's earlier movies. The Key (1958), was similarly criticized for its impersonal nature. In 1959, Reed went to Cuba to film Our Man in Havana, based on a story by Graham Greene. The production went off without a hitch amid the turmoil and festivities surrounding Fidel Castro's takeover of the island, and the rebel leader even visited during the final day's location shooting. The resulting movie wasn't well received at the time, although it has since come to be regarded as a minor satirical classic.
The 1960s were a less satisfying time for Reed, as he was replaced on Mutiny on the Bounty by Lewis Milestone, and The Agony and the Ecstacy (1965) failed miserably at the box office. It was fortunate for him that the film's failure was attributed more to the personality of Charlton Heston, its star, who was more dominant in the finished work than Reed. In 1968, the director had his final triumph with the release of the musical Oliver!, based on the stage work by Lionel Bart. It was distinguished not only as one of the few blockbusters of its era to rake in a profit (the landscape was littered with failed musicals in those years, including Robert Wise's Star! and Richard Fleischer's Doctor Dolittle), but one of the very few screen adaptations of a stage work to eclipse the theatrical original. Its brace of Academy Awards included Best Picture and the Best Director Oscar for Reed. Although Reed did two more movies, Flap (1970, dealing with the plight of Native Americans) and The Public Eye (1972), neither was widely distributed, and both suffered from the effects of his declining health and advancing age. He passed away in 1976, following years of weakening health and a mild heart attack. At the time, Reed was known to two different generations of filmgoers for either The Third Man or Oliver! and was remembered by film historians. In the decades since, his movies have been regularly rediscovered by new generations of viewers, and his reputation has risen in conjunction with that re-evaluation.