Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Third Man (1949)

Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles

The light goes on, illuminating the face of Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who smiles slightly. The light goes off and he disappears. But Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) knows what he saw and has discovered the identity of the mysterious third man, a man who was supposedly a witness to the death of Harry Lime. It’s one of the best movie entrances ever, played exactly right on every level. And in the corrupt, topsy-turvy world of The Third Man it makes perfect sense that Lime would be a witness to his own death.

Carol Reed’s masterpiece takes place in a crumbling post-war Vienna divided into zones by the Allied troops, where the decadence of Old World art lives side-by-side with the black market commerce of the New World order. Holly has arrived to visit his friend Harry Lime, but instead finds him dead. He quickly falls for Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s lover, and soon after discovers Harry, whose involvement in black market smuggling and peddling put a target on his back, necessitating his “death.” The British officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is determined to catch Lime and makes a deal with Holly to trap him.

The relationship between Holly and Anna is interesting. He is immediately infatuated with her and wants to protect her (from both Major Calloway, who is convinced that she knows more about Lime than she lets on, and from the Russians who will repatriate her to Czechoslovakia if they discover that her passport is a forgery). She seems to like him, but also obviously sees him as a substitute for Harry (often she does call him Harry, a fact which does not go unnoticed by him). While Holly’s opinion of Lime changes with each new discovery about his business, Anna remains loyal in her love for him (“A person doesn’t change just because you find out more”), even after it becomes apparent that Lime is willing to let her take a fall with the authorities provided that his cover remains intact. Anna’s feelings for Harry never change, but her feelings for Holly are in constant flux until finally, with Harry’s death, Holly, too, is dead to her and the film ends with her walking right past him in the cemetery as if he doesn’t even exist.

Cotton and Valli both turn in good performances, but it’s Welles who looms large over the film. I don’t think any actor has ever had a presence quite like his. When he appears on screen, no matter how big the part, you just know it’s about to get so good, even if the film itself is not. This is a film that is equal to his talent and, in the relatively small amount of screen time that he has, gives him a lot to play with and supplies him with a lot of lines of the type that he knows exactly what to do with. “Victims?” Lime asks Holly as they take a sinister ride in a Ferris wheel, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? 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?” And then, upon disembarking, he utters his famous line about the Swiss inventing the cuckoo clock. Once lines like these are said by Orson Welles, you really can’t imagine them being effectively uttered by anyone else.

The Third Man is an intricately constructed film. If you see something once (Kurtz’s dog, the little boy, the cat), it will show up again later in the film as part of an important plot turn. The story itself is constructed on repetitions. Lime is buried twice in the film, Anna is constantly being escorted away from Holly by the police, Holly twice returns to the spot where Lime died to stage a recreation. It’s as if the characters are attempting to go back in time and rewrite history. Holly himself is a writer who is, more or less, attempting to impose his will on the story and change it, only to find that he is at the story’s mercy instead of the other way around.

While the film would be perfectly good based solely on it’s writing and performances, the direction by Reed is what elevates it to the realm of masterpiece. We are keyed immediately to the fact that all is not what it seems by the way that the film is shot, with the camera tilted so that images come to us at an angle. This isn’t a straight forward, up-and-down world. It’s a world seen largely in shadow, shadows which both reveal and distort reality. The way that the film plays with light and shadow contribute in no small part to it’s atmosphere and it's success as a film, as do the surroundings on which the shadows are cast. The Vienna we see here is a decaying city, with large portions still in ruins – like Harry, the city itself is both dead and living.

The final chase through the labyrinthine sewers under Vienna is the highlight of the film. We see Lime desperate, trapped, surrounded and finally killed, more or less requesting death than succumbing to it. The way this sequence is controlled and executed demonstrates the power of Reed’s direction. It is a chase fraught with tension for both Lime and the audience, and it's directed and photographed magnificently. When Oscar time rolled around, this film was nominated for three: Director, Editing and Cinematography (which it won), and it’s easy to see why – the film is like a master class in technical perfection.

No comments: