I have what I like to think of as a modestly eclectic film DVD collection. I like no one type of film, but I do have some categories. So far, we have had a sub-titled French film, a cult classic and an animation, so it seemed appropriate to close out the month with a classic Forties Black and White.
I chose The Third Man because I wanted a serious film, not a comedy. There are so many things which make this legendary film what it is, a near perfect example of what can no longer be done in cinema. Though it’s set in Vienna, and the Vienna of its year of production, 1949, making full use of the bombed out city, its ruins’ cleared grounds, its brokenness, though it stars two Americans and an Italian, in addition to Trevor Howard, though the city itself deserves a credit as a leading player, it is still a British film, and regarded as one of the very best we have ever produced.
And that shows it the film’s sense of restraint, it’s careful underplaying. There is much opportunity for melodrama, indeed the film’s story reeks of it, but director Carol Reed marshalls his cast into a naturalistic performance that echoes the sense of weariness, the post-War malaise, the overriding feeling that something once valued has gone out of the world, and that it is the time of the crooked, the selfish, the villainous, against which resistance is ultimately futile, because of the sheer volume of tarnished living that it faces.
My first exposure to The Third Man was, unusually, in print. The screenplay is by the noted novelist, Graham Greene, who prepared by writing a novella, to get right the atmosphere of seediness, decay and foolish romanticism. This was never meant to be published but was released as part of a Complete Works series, in which form I borrowed it from the Library. It is, curiously enough, the only Graham Greene I have ever read.
The film changes several things: originally, the ‘hero’ is Englishman Rollo Martins, who becomes American pulp western writer, Holly Martins when layed by Joseph Cotton, and Harry Lime, the villain, is also English. It is narrated by Major Calloway (Howard), and the ending is different, over which Greene had a major disagreement with Reed, and lost. Later, he agreed that Reed was completely right.
The Third Man is couched as a mystery. Holly Martins arrives in Vienna at the summoning of is lifeling friend, Harry Lime, who has offered the broke pulp writer a job. However, only hours before, Lime has been killed in a road accident outside his building. Martins attends his funeral, as do the beautiful Anna Schmidt, Lime’s actress lover, and Major Calloway, of International Police Headquarters, who is glad to see the back of Lime, a racketeer and black marketer.
Martins, who is as much a frustrated romantic, a white knight, as any of his western heroes, refuses to believe Calloway, indeed dismisses as unimportant anything Lime might have done, and determines to stay in Vienna to clear his friend’s name. And his amateur enquiries turn up person after person who advise him to leave Vienna, not to get involved in what is not his business. All of which make Martins the more determined to stay, especially as there appear to be discrepancies in the story. Lime was killed by a truck driven by his own driver, whilst with two friends, and certified dead by his own Doctor, arriving moments later. Did he die immediately or leave multiple messages for his friends? Was he carried to the sidewalk by two men, or three?
So far, so much pulp cliche, even down to Calloway’s ongoing exasperation at Martins’ interference. But Calloway isn’t some Chandler-esque corrupt cop, however much Martins wants to paint him as such. He’s a decent man who knows that Martins is wrong-headed, that he is ignorant, that he is blinded by his loyalty to his old friend.
And even before Calloway begins to open up Martins’ eyes for him, to give him free reign with the Lime file, to show that Lime is trading in black market penicillin, and is responsible for death and worse, Martins is falling deeper, coming to love Anna Schmidt.
Who wouldn’t? She’s a sweet, anxious, lovely-looking woman (Alida Valli, billed her as simply Valli, born a Baroness of an Austro-Hungarian family) who’s know in trouble with the authorities. The passport that identifies her as Austrian is a forgery, procured by Harry: in truth she is Czech, and as such falls under Russian authority, and will be repatriated once she is in their hands. Anna is lost at Harry’s death, as detached and weary as the stricken Vienna, a woman alone in need of assistance. Of course Holly falls for her. But Anna loves Harry, still. He is the only one for her.
And whilst all these standard ingredients are being combined to produce a familiar story, we are constantly being jerked out of it by Reed. There is the unfamiliarity of Vienna, emphasised continually by Austrian speech, untranslated (when Anna’s lodgings are raided by the police there is a splenetic response by her horrified landlady, rich in the shame of the police being in a house like hers, not a word of which I understand, but the whole sense of which I get), and by Reed’s constant intercutting of faces in close-shot, real faces, curious onlookers, looming before our eyes, their dead eyes looking in on what is happening.
But the point of The Third Man is to overturn all that. Harry Lime is guilty of everything they say of him, Holly Martins’ quest is as foolish as Major Calloway thinks it, and Harry Lime is not dead: he never has been.
Vienna is already a part of this film, but the scene of revelation brings the city into its sharpest focus. A drunk Holly, coming as close as he ever can to entertaining Anna, but at the same time realising how far he is from her heart, leaves her apartment in the dark of night, odd, harsh shadows filing the street like dark matter. A man hides in a doorway. Holly challenges him, expectinh some watcher, some spy trailing him. But Anna’s cat and a stray light from the window of a Viennese angry at Holly disturbing the night, reveals Orson Welles, Harry Lime, with a self-satisfied smirk.
Lime runs, his exaggerated shadow pumping elbows and knees against the wall of a curving street, and disappears into thin air in a deserted square. Or rather much thicker air: a disbelieving Caloway starts to believe once he sees the access to the Vienna sewers.
By now, the story has attained the elegant inevitability of a classic tragedy, though tragedy is supposed to be about the fall of a great man and there is nothing great about Harry Lime. He comes out of hiding to meet and talk with Holly on the famous Wiener Risenrad, the gigantic ferris wheel. Lime is smooth, cynical, callous, keeps addressing Holly impersonally but quasi-intimately as ‘old man’. He speaks of how easy it would be for him to kill Holly. He is still willing to cut Holly in, and will meet him any time, anywhere, without the Police.
And there’s that famous line about Switzerland and the cuckoo-clock, supplied by Welles himself, when the scene needed another few words for timing. Not original, not actually accurate, but a self-illuminating moment.
Martins has seen enough. In return for Major Calloway getting Anna out, safe and free, he will lead Lime into a trap. But Anna won’t go. She knows Lime is alive. She knows everything he’s done and she cares no more than he does, when set against her love for him. More than anything, however, she will not be the price for his betrayal. She tears up her new Passport, lets the train leave.
For a moment, Martins’ old romanticism returns. He can’t turn Lime in, wants to leave, now. En route to the airport, Calloway plays dirty one last time, a stopover at the children’s ward, the ones who ‘survived’ Lime’s watered-down penicillin. We don’t see them, we see the nuns, and Calloway, and Martins looking from cradle to cradle. That won’t ever happen in film again, where there is nothing too terrible, too wrenching to be seen. Really, we don’t need to see damaged children, we only need to hear how Joseph Cotton has Holly Martins say, “Ok, you win,”, but no-one will ever take that much of our hearts and imagination on trust, and we are the poorer for it.
So the trap is set up. Figures hide in the dark, An old man, with a stick, selling balloons in the night, with an ancient, gentle dignity that is all he retains, reminds us of the world we are observing. Anna enters the cafe to denounce Holly. When Harry comes to the back door, she warns him off.
There is a chase, across bomb-sites, through streets, into the sewers, the famous climax. Martins follows Calloway and the stolid, reliable Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), the right hand man who reads and enjoys Martins’ books. Lime twists and turns, he runs and jumps, he hides and dives, but the operation is too big, too detailed. All escapes are closed off. Inevitably, he crosses paths with Martins. Paine sees the danger, tries to protect the amateur, and is shot and killed by Lime. Calloway shoots and wounds Lime, who crawls away. Still the white knight, the lone gunman, the Oklahoma Kid, Holly takes Paine’s gun. Lime has found a stair but he is too weak to lift the grating. Calloway yells for Martins to kill Lime, he’s too dangerous, don’t take chances. Harry is anything but. He can either be taken or killed. He nods, once.
Thus we come to Harry Lime’s second funeral, same grave, same priest. Even the same mourners, in Anna and Holly. Calloway gives Martins a lift, to his plane. They drive past Anna, determinedly walking away. Martins asks to be let out, to wait for her. Calloway knows what is to come but leaves him there anyway. Holly waits by the side of the screen/avenue, as Anna walks along its centre until she draws level with him, and walks on, towards and past the camera. Martins lights a cigarette, throws the match down in dejection.
In Greene’s novella, she listens to him, leaving the door open. Reed and David Selnick, who had provided Cotton and Welles, refused the happy ending as artificial, and by heavens they were right, as Greene later acknowledged, whole-heartedly.
Thus The Third Man. I haven’t mentioned the photography, its use of angles, its contrast between light and deep shadow that makes every image a patchwork, so much hidden, so much exposed. For years, his aficionados have claimed that Welles undertook large parts of the direction, encouraged by hints from Welles that he later, properly, dispelled, but it’s true that the film could not exist as it does without Citizen Kane and its look.
And there is the famous soundtrack, composed and played by one man and one instrument, the hitherto unknown Anton Karas, discovered by Reed playing in a Viennese Heuriger, or wine-bar, and catapulted to a world-wide fame he never wanted or enjoyed. Karas’s soundtrack is the indelible sound of Vienna, and his ‘Harry Lime Theme’ an astonishing world-wide best seller.
A brilliant film deserving of all its reputation, a seemingly conventional murder mystery turned on its head and exploded, a story about the conflict between love, loyalty and duty to things bigger than yourself, a portrait of a time and place that we respond to with a misdirected romanticism of our own, even as, on the surface, we hope it will never come again, though a part of us wants to walk those streets and cast our own shadows, greater than ourselves, without dying for it in a sewer, whose smell is sweeter than our own crimes.