Thursday 4 March 2010

The Third Man (1949)

Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The Third Man is a thoroughly British film, as evidenced by the opening credits. It was made by London Films, so it begins with their standard logo accompanied by the chimes of Big Ben. It was distributed by British Lion Film Corporation. Alexander Korda, one of the cornerstones of the British film industry, founded the former and owned the latter. He was Hungarian by birth but British by adoption. It was written by Graham Greene, one of the great English writers of the era, who initially wrote a novella to prepare himself for the screenplay. It was directed by Carol Reed, who had filmed another Graham Greene story a year earlier, The Fallen Idol. They'd reunite a decade later for Our Man in Havana.

It was even ranked at the very top of the British Film Institute 100, their list of the greatest British films of the twentieth century, beating into second place another Trevor Howard movie, David Lean's Brief Encounter. As if to emphasise how British it is, it doesn't just feature Howard and Bernard Lee, who would go on to play M in the James Bond series, but also the quintessentially English Wilfrid Hyde-White as a man named Crabbin, possibly the only actor who could believably react to news of a death with a half cheerful line like 'Goodness, that's awkward,' yet not be a complete idiot. He's as blissfully and incorrigibly English as you could expect.

Yet it's not set in Britain, as evidenced by the frequent use of the zither, which accompanies the credits and pervades the film. The composer and player Anton Karas was discovered by Reed playing in a wine garden (or perhaps a production party) but that chance meeting led him to the top of the charts with the music, which Roger Ebert has described as the most perfectly suited ever to the film it accompanies. It's set in Vienna, in 1949 an international city that had been 'bombed about a bit' during the war and following it was split into four internationally administered zones, one each for the Americans, British, Russians and French, only the town centre and a smattering of German being shared between them all.

And into this multilingual and multicultural city trying to find its feet after the war comes Holly Martins, an American writer of pulp westerns, played skilfully by Joseph Cotten, who was somehow able to walk the fine line between believably capable and utterly ineffectual. As you might expect, a good deal of what we hear is foreign, a smörgåsbord of accents, dialects and languages, all of which help to make the place seem impenetrable to Martins as a newly arrived visitor. He's rarely given the luxury of translations and we're never given the luxury of subtitles, so he's a fish out of water from moment one and we watch him flounder around while trying to make a difference in a story he really doesn't understand but feels drawn to anyway.

Martins is there because his old friend Harry Lime has wired him from Vienna to offer him a job, even sending him a plane ticket because he's so short of funds that he wouldn't be able to afford one himself. He thought Lime would be there to meet him, but he isn't, for a rather good reason. He's dead, killed by a truck in front of his home, and Martins arrives ten minutes too late to see his coffin being removed. He finds his way to the cemetery where Lime is being buried, but finds himself instead caught up in a mystery, bounced around from place to place, person to person, event to event, always trying but failing to find any control over any situation. It begins when Maj Calloway, an English military policeman in charge of the sector, gives him a lift from the cemetery to a bar to drown his sorrows and milk him for information, only to end up explaining that the 'best friend he ever had' was one of the worst racketeers in the city.

Martins initially doesn't believe a word of it and naturally thinks the best of his friend, so leaps at anything that might help clear his name, hardly a difficult task given that nobody seems able to agree with anyone else about what actually happened. One of Lime's friends, Baron Kurtz, explains that he and another man, a Romanian called Popescu, carried his body to a statue on the far side of the street and he remained alive long enough to talk for a short while about Martins, his friend, and Anna Schmidt, his lover. Anna, a Czech actress masquerading under Austrian papers to avoid repatriation, doesn't believe it was an accident and that the man she loves was murdered. Karl, the porter at Lime's building, swears that Lime died instantly and that three men carried the corpse to the statue.

Nobody seems to have any idea who the third man was, so Martins takes it upon himself to find out, effectively taking on the part of a hero from one of his pulp westerns. He even points this out to Maj Calloway, suggesting a parallel to his novel, The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, in which 'a lone rider whose best friend was shot unlawfully by a sheriff, hunts the sheriff down.' Over time he has to rethink this, after Karl is murdered before he can give him another snippet of information, and Calloway shows him the proof of Lime's perfidy. He'd run a racket where he obtained penicillin from military hospitals, courtesy of a hospital orderly called Harbin, then diluted it and sold it back to patients, killing many and causing many more to go insane, all to benefit him to the tune of £70 a tube.

Not a shot is wasted in The Third Man, every one of them adding a glance or an angle or a texture that aids the claustrophobic quality of the piece, as Holly Martins is hurled around Vienna like it's a tornado or a nightmare. At one point he's whisked away from his hotel by a man he can't understand who he thinks is going to drive him to the station, only to come to the belief that he's been kidnapped and yet to be delivered unharmed to Crabbin's book club to provide a lecture on the crisis of faith. 'What's that?' asks Martins. 'Oh, I thought you would know,' replies Crabbin. 'You're a writer, of course you do.' After it's over he runs from pursuers only to be given away by a parrot which bites him and he subsequently evades capture in a bullet ridden relic of a car. The whole thing is surreal and yet it can't be dismissed as an aberration because the entire film is just as full of surrealism and dark humour.

It's somewhat akin to a nightmare. What if you went to see an old friend that you hadn't seen in a decade and the world turned upside down? Moreover how would you react after it's turned upside down and someone highlights, as Anna does here, that 'a person doesn't change just because you find out more.' Suddenly you're not just reevaluating your situation, you're reevaluating your whole life, all the while without much opportunity to think about anything because you're being whirled around an expressionistic dreamscape, never sure who anyone really is or what they really stand for, let alone what they're actually talking about in those foreign languages that you don't understand. They could be German or Russian, but they could be nightmare gibberish for all you know.

The look of the film emphasises this nightmarish quality admirably. It was shot mostly on cobbled streets sprayed with water to reflect the light better at night and in a maze of sewers, full of nooks and crannies, lights and shadows, ladders and ceilings that constantly change height. Much of it is shot at strange angles, which often gel well with the broken architecture of the city but which prompted director William Wyler to send Reed a spirit level with a note reading, 'Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?' While it bears many similarities with film noir, it's really a different, equally cynical, offshoot from the same source, the look and feel of the expressionist German silent horror movies of the early twenties, films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and The Golem. Cinematographer Robert Krasker won a well deserved Oscar for his work.

There's even a telling nod to children's fantasy, when Anna describes Harry Lime as some sort of dark Peter Pan figure. 'He never grew up,' she says. 'The world grew up around him.' This connection to childhood and growing up is echoed when Martins finally meets his old friend from school again, at an empty fairground in the Russian sector to be introduced to his real nature in no uncertain terms while riding round the city's legendary Riesenrad ferris wheel. Lime asks him to look down at the people on the ground far below them. 'Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?' he asks. 'If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?'

Lime is played by Orson Welles, who was initially hesitant about the film and turned up for shooting in Vienna two weeks late, but who quickly became enthusiastic and brought some powerful touches to the film, not least his improvised speech about cuckoo clocks and a truly wonderful entrance. Harry Lime does arrive eventually, far from dead and suitably secreted in the shadows of a doorway, given away only by Anna's cat and a lighted window. This setting and his knowing smirk makes for one of the great movie entrances of all time, made all the more powerful by the fact we've had to wait over an hour to see him, and more mysterious given that he promptly runs away and disappears into nowhere, emphasising yet again that nightmare quality to the film, which culminates in the discovery that it was another man in his coffin all along.

This is a fascinating film to watch because it flouts all the conventions we might expect to see. The hero is notably flawed, a man who tries to impose his own sense of morality, sourced from the pulp western novels he writes, on a situation where it simply doesn't apply. The parallel is to the Cold War, given that in westerns the west is the last bastion of true American values and the east is the source of corruption, villainy and unwanted progress. So Martins becomes the western hero, The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, who heroically stands up for his friend, who consequently turns out to be the villain of the piece. Once confronted with the truth, Martins proves unable to find a stance, constantly wavering until Maj Calloway takes him on a tour of the local children's hospital, full of young victims of Lime's watered down penicillin.

The heroine is initially set up like a western showgirl, given that she's a stage actress who is apparently only in the story as a love interest for Lime, but she proves to be stronger willed than Martins, unflinching in her support for her lover even when she knows what he's done. The final scene is impeccably played and it serves as the final nail in the coffin of Martins's pulp western sensibilities. Alida Valli, credited only by surname, was forced on the production by co-producer David O Selznick, but Reed and Korda were hardly unhappy with the casting choice and proceeded to upset him to no small degree by refusing to turn her into the glamorous leading lady he expected. Perhaps Martins and Selznick shared that western sense of ethics.

And then there's Lime, set up to receive our sympathy, an accident victim who might just be a murder victim, then the victim of malicious gossip but always a victim. We're so conditioned to side with the hero that we can't help but follow the perspective Martins gives us. Yet we discover that Lime is a cold and callous character, utterly unlike what anyone expects, but one who through Welles's winning smile and odd little touches like the heart he draws in the window of the Riesenrad or the cuckoo clock analogy, still drags some sympathy out of us. We know he's the villain but with the hero failing we wonder if we're supposed to start rooting for the villain. Greene's screenplay is a masterful set of plays on our expectations that always keeps us on the hop. It's still doing that sixty years on. What did you see?

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