Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)

Starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles

Directed by Carol Reed

Set in Vienna, a city carved into pieces in the aftermath of the Second World War, director Carol Reed (who had previously made one of the definitive Second World war films, "The Way Ahead") adapts the novella by Graham Greene, who received screen credit for adapting his own piece, into one of the true classics of cinema.  It's a film (A London Film) to which I keep returning time and time again; it's just a nose behind "Lawrence of Arabia" as the best film ever made, in my opinion.  There's a lot in it; mystery, friendship, betrayal, morality and ethics, the threat of authority, resurrection, romance.  And zither music.  Lots of zither music.  Anton Karas' theme is one of the most recognizable film themes ever.  The opening credits even play over a close up of the strings of a zither being plucked.  Having set up the politics of the situation in Vienna with one of those quotey old-school chattily voiced-over montages one doesn't see in films these days ("Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins"), the film proper opens with an American, the aforesaid Martins (Cotten), writer of pulp Western novels, arriving by train in the Austrian capital to visit his old friend Harry Lime (Welles); Martins has hit upon hard times and Lime has offered him gainful employment.  But he soon finds out that Lime has been killed - hit by a truck outside his flat - but that he, Martins, is just in time to attend the funeral.  At the funeral Martins meets a British Army officer, Major Calloway (upon being mistakenly named Callaghan by Martins he snaps "Calloway.  I'm English, not Irish!").  Calloway reveals that Lime was a racketeer and murderer, suggesting Martins return home forthwith.  But Martins is faithful to his friend and insists the Major must be mistaken.  After one drink too many he attempts to punch him, and is restrained by Sergeant Paine - the great Bernard Lee (real first name John, for any trivia fans out there!)  It's amusing when Paine, escorting Martins to his hotel, admits to being a big fan of his Westerns.  The following day, Holly finds himself becoming embroiled in the mystery, regardless of his own intentions, as he meets Harry's brooding, dark-haired actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and those who were present at the scene of Lime's death.  Coincidentally, it seems they all knew him or were somehow connected to him.  Something is not quite right.

The porter in Harry's apartment building tells Holly and Anna that three men carried Lime's body, contrary to the official line heard at the inquest, that there were only two.  But he is reticent to become involved or say more.  Similar enquiries prove frustrating. So who was the Third Man?  Given that the film poster (the biggest spoiler since the Statue of Liberty showed up on the "Planet of the Apes" dvd cover - oops!) shows Welles, I think it's fairly safe now 65 years on to say that Lime isn't actually a corpse, but faked his death, for reasons which become apparent, and that the body was that of another person.  The very much alive Lime reveals himself to Martins in one of the most memorable and iconic scenes in  the whole history of cinema.  Welles' face, as he stands in the shadows of a recessed doorway, is suddenly illuminated by a light turning on across the street.  Lime grins at Holly before slipping away.  It's a first appearance over an hour into the film, but Lime's presence utterly dominates proceedings. 

As does Welles'.  He doesn't direct here, and indeed proceedings are a lot tighter and more disciplined than might have been the case had he done so, but his sensibility is all pervasive.  In fact, after that wordless doorway shot, he only really has two scenes - one in which he meets Martins to have a little chat on the Weiner Weisenrad, the big Ferris Wheel which dominates the Prater Park, and one at the film's climax in which he arrives for a pre-arranged rendezvous with Martins only to discover he has been betrayed; this leads to a memorably atmospheric chase through the stark shadows of the streets and eventually sewers.  It's wryly appropriate that the "rat" ends up {Spoiler alert, but we are talking 66 years ago) meeting his end in the sewers.  Welles perfectly embodies the "banality of evil" - the ability to be utterly charming but thoroughly rotten to the core.  Robert Krasker's visuals are striking, Martins' growing confusion reflected by an increasing number of "dutch angles", and menacing shots from below looking upwards.  The idealized good v bad ethic is sharply brought out in the light / shadow motif, but ultimately everything is grey, visually as well as morally.

This film is packed full of epic and memorable lines of dialogue.  Perhaps most famous is Lime's line on the Borgias versus the Swiss: " Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."  Apparently improvised by Welles (depending on which apocryphal stories you read) the words speak to the heart of Harry's character.  In other words, to borrow from the Joker, you can't make an omelette if you don't break some eggs.  Lime's means are to the ends. In the same scene, looking down on the people below, Lime defends his dubious actions comparing the little dots, ants, and asking Holly if he would really care if one of those dots was squashed.  Welles and Cotten play off each other brilliantly, not surprising given their extended association together in the Mercury Theater.  And I love Calloway's line "Death's at the bottom of everything Martins.  Leave death to the professionals."

Essentially, this is film noir, although it doesn't wear the traditionally perceived badges of that genre (Private Investigator, murder of individual, convoluted plot, the femme as fatale rather than victim), it is black film in its truest sense.  It reeks of the same bitterness found in much "traditional" film noir; bad things happen to good people.  The war is won but the aftermath makes Lime's crimes possible.  The film has lodged itself in the general popular consciousness by virtue of these iconic moments and endearing emotions and themes, it's psychological horror, almost.  It's as close as we have or probably will come in recent years to Shakespearean tragedy (of course Welles himself produced visionary adaptations of Shakespeare on screen - "Macbeth" in 1948, "Othello" in 1952 and "Chimes at Midnight" in 1965).  

The Third Man is utter brilliance.

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