Friday, October 21, 2011

The Third Man (1949)

UK, 104 minutes
Director: Carol Reed
Writers: Graham Greene, Alexander Korda, Carol Reed, Orson Welles
Photography: Robert Krasker
Music: Anton Karas
Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee, Wilfred Hyde-White, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto, Paul Hoerbiger

In his introduction on the Criterion DVD, Peter Bogdanovich calls The Third Man "perhaps the greatest 'non-auteur' film ever made," going on to compare it with Casablanca as an "extraordinarily happy accident." That's probably fair enough. There's plenty of talent to go around here: Graham Greene wrote both the screenplay and the literary property on which it's based. Cinematographer Robert Krasker is positively heroic about converting postwar Vienna into a malevolent place of inky blacks, confusing geometries, and outsize shadows. And of course Orson Welles, in spite of his limited screen time—he doesn't even appear until the first hour has passed—imposes enough sheer presence to make it feel as much like a Welles picture as any on which he carries the director's credit.

Obviously I still need to see some of director Carol Reed's other efforts, particularly of the period—Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, which immediately preceded The Third Man, are widely praised. But Bogdanovich's assessment does confirm my impression of this as one of those unique and special projects where so much falls into place just right, with contributors working together well and at the same time achieving personal heights.

For me, it's one of those pictures that only get better the more I see. After hearing it so routinely lauded to the skies it was something of a disappointment the first time I saw it, but that's in the past now. Krasker's photography may be the most showy aspect of it, certainly the easiest to notice and perhaps the most discussed—that first shot of Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles) standing in a doorway at night when a light lands on his face, and the elaborate chase scenes at the end through the Vienna sewers. Vienna is presented as dank and moist, which may be fine for a good piece of chocolate cake but somehow feels unrelievedly corrupt for an ancient city. The feeling of corruption is palpable, deeply embedded in everything here.

At the same time, Krasker finds numerous ways to open up his field of vision, as in the tremendous final shot of a tree-lined lane down which walks Harry Lime's lover Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli), slowly, slowly approaching the camera, with Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) waiting patiently for her in medium on the left-hand side of the frame.

The story is pure Graham Greene: stiff-upper-lipped wise and forbearing Brits personified by a formidable Trevor Howard, carrying on with their endless duties in the face of anything, ever unflappable, never surprised by whatever ugly facade of society may present itself, even as things go from bad to worst. They indulge occasionally in slight sighs of impatience, like long-suffering parents with willful children whom they love, at the naivete of those (here, mostly Americans, and more specifically mostly Martins) who won't grasp the evils in the world for what they are. It's also full of the kind of spies and subterfuge and deceptions (self-imposed and otherwise) with which Greene loves to stuff his tales.

Yet somehow this feels to me more than anything else like a Welles picture. His big fat American face is pleased to carry the lion's share of the horrors so circumspectly on display here. His work in the postwar black market is vastly more, and worse, than simply providing people with needed items and/or luxuries in short supply. He is willing to commit the most unforgivable crimes almost casually, and he is so glib and sanguine about rationalizing himself that it's hard to know, with his old college pal Martins, whether to be disgusted or charmed. The first impulse is for the latter, but we learn to know better.

The Third Man is also one of those classic films noir (there's another coming up next week) that doesn't seem to me to fit the label well—indeed, in this case, seems to me to transcend it by a good bit, its story altogether too big, its crimes a matter of war and vast injustice and ultimately more monstrous, above and beyond the typical interpersonal scheming and grasping I tend to associate with the form. Even among the British flavors of noir this seems to me somewhat overshadowed (no pun intended) by Jules Dassin's Night and the City, which fits more neatly into my idea of the genre (or style, or whatever "noir" is).

But there's little question that this is a fine and dark entertainment, an excellent production hitting on all cylinders: a masterful story and screenplay, unforgettable cinematography, and a cast turning in uniformly fine performances. Welles is just the most obvious example on that latter point. I think Trevor Howard has never been better, and Joseph Cotten makes the case once again for being one of the most reliable players of the time, able to take on a variety of roles. The Viennese milieu is pitch-perfect and altogether the picture is paced just right, never losing its momentum in the thickets of narrative and holding back its surprises until the right moments to spring them.

One last note: I have run across a few complaints here and there, actually in many very different quarters, about the soundtrack, and thus feel vaguely compelled to issue a qualifier or user warning on its behalf. Anton Karas's zither-driven music is capricious and weird, even jarring, and may strike some as overly cute, or at least out of place. I understand the apprehensions on some level, but it also seems to me now so much of a piece with this movie that I rarely think about it anymore. But because I have actually seen people complain that it ruins it for them, caveat emptor: Here there be copious zither flourishes.

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