May 12, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Third Man

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

The Third Man: Criterion edition (1949)
Written by Graham Greene, from his original novella
Directed by Carol Reed

(Special thanks today to essayist Matthew Dessem, who generated most of the screenshots you're seeing in today's review. If you're not yet reading Dessem's blog, The Criterion Contraption [in which he is slowly filing incredibly astute reviews of every single DVD Criterion has ever released], start doing so!)

Time and nostalgia have a way of screwing with even our most consistent memories, not to mention the way we as a society look back on the past; take the 1950s, for one easy example, a time of great racial strife, violence and red-baiting witch hunts, that is nonetheless now looked back on by most as an idyllic "Leave It To Beaver" time of innocence. And so it is with World War II as well; that as the last of its veterans start dying, the Tom Brokaws of the world have stepped in with their clean, revisionist "Greatest Generation" takes on the affair, threatening to turn the whole messy thing in our minds into an orderly and always-justified European holiday.

Thank God, then, that such movies as 1949's The Third Man are still around, much less that they were made in the first place; produced immediately after the war, from a script by celebrated British misanthrope Graham Greene, and shot in the former Nazi headquarters of Vienna while it was still mostly nothing but rubble, it reminds us that there is no such thing as a "noble war," and that even the most pure of heart can easily turn to corruption in such an environment, sometimes for pure survival if nothing else. The movie asks difficult questions of humanity, ones we are pondering yet again during this time of terrorism and torture we are currently going through: of whether you can truly justify inhuman behavior during a time of war, as a means of fighting that war or sometimes merely surviving it, or whether such ethical compromises strip you of the very humanity you think worth fighting for in the first place. Is it better to be morally pure but dead, or morally compromised but alive to see another day? And in a wartime environment, is it fair to even pose such questions? The Third Man ponders all of these topics and more, while still being wickedly funny in a very black way, and while featuring some of the most stunning cinematography you'll ever see in a pre-widescreen movie, restored to its stunning original condition back in 1999 for the movie's 50th anniversary.

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

The biggest irony of all this, of course, is that the creative team behind The Third Man (Greene and director Carol Reed) never meant to create an "important" or "historical" film; they were merely trying to pull off a cheapie, fast-paced film noir, shot in postwar Europe simply to save money, set in Allied-controlled Vienna simply because they thought it an exotic location that would sell more tickets. And for those who don't know, postwar Bavaria was indeed a great location to set a film noir: basically nothing but rubble for a good decade after the war finished, both Germany and Austria pretty much survived those years through the proliferation of a vast and sophisticated black market, one that virtually every person participated in, simply because there was no other way to obtain many needed goods.

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

The situation, as well as the movie's plot, begs the question -- that in such an environment, what are we to think of those who profit from the circumstances? This is the question thrust quickly on our protagonist, the sad-sack pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins (played exquisitely by the irreplaceable Joseph Cotton), basically the 1940s version of a slightly inept American sitcom writer, who has been flown to Vienna by his old college buddy Harry Lime (Orson Welles, in a career-defining role), ostensibly because of a mysterious job offer. Once there, however, Martins realizes the truth: that Lime was killed just a few days previous, that he turns out to have been a particularly inept racketeer, and that he most likely made his money by stealing Penicillin from military hospitals, watering it down and selling it to unsuspecting victims. And thus does the jaded American arrive in Bavaria, facing a mountain of questions about his "job offer" from the multinational police force currently trying to run the city, without a penny to his own name, forced to pass himself off as a "serious novelist" to a local cultural group in order to raise the pocket money needed just to stay and investigate the situation.

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

And investigate the situation Martins does, which as many film critics over the years have pointed out, is where things really start to fall apart for him; because as much as he thinks he's capable (after all, Martins ran moonshine back in the States with Lime during Prohibition), this squeaky-clean American just isn't ready to see the world in the infinite shades of gray needed to understand his old friend's behavior. After all, whose opinion of Lime should he actually trust? Was he the inhuman monster the police claim, one who left behind an entire hospital wing's worth of mutants in order to score a profit off diluted medicine? Or is he the savior described by his ex-girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who explains how Lime managed to secure her a fake Austrian passport after the war, so that she wouldn't have to return to her native, now-Communist Czechoslovakia? Or was Lime the inept do-nothing portrayed by his former business associates, the simultaneously hilarious and disgusting Popescu (Siegfried Breuer) and Winkel (Erich Ponto), a man so unimportant to their operations (according to them) that not another thought should be given to his demise?

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

As the genuinely funny black comedy unfolds, we realize that maybe there is no single option which can be chosen in such a situation and called correct: that maybe the complexities of war can make a person both noble and evil at the same time, sometimes through the very same actions. And that of course is what makes The Third Man so ahead of its time, and such a classic now -- that even though we in our modern times are used to addressing such shades-of-gray questions, such topics were almost never tackled in the morally black-and-white world of Hollywood in the 1940s. (Want proof? Check out one of the many cool DVD additions, a radio spinoff series from the '50s also starring Welles, in which Harry Lime doesn't die, comes back to America and becomes a crimefighter. Yeesh.) Indeed, this is one of the things that makes the movie so enjoyable: that Martins reacts to the situation in the way a typical cardboard-cutout 1940s movie hero would, even though screenwriter Greene creates a situation where such reactions are wildly inappropriate and naive. It's an amazing thing to watch in a movie so old, and a great reminder that even in those years, there were lots of people around able to approach such situations with a surprisingly complex mindset...just that they normally weren't given the chance to make big-budget Hollywood films.

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

Of course, one of the biggest treats of The Third Man is Orson Welles' captivating performance as the legitimate scumbag Harry Lime; which of course is the ultimate irony of the movie, in that Welles actually appears in less than 15 minutes of the finished film. (For a great story about why Welles thought this performance was so well-regarded by the public, do make sure to catch the DVD introduction by Peter Bogdanovich.) It's these 15 minutes, though, and especially the mind-blowing scene between Lime and Martins in the a moving Ferris wheel, that shows why Welles was such a freaking genius -- just witness the callous way he refers to his victims, while still making you completely charmed by his crooked smile and roguish personality. Simply put, this film wouldn't work without Welles' 15 minutes, unlike most of the famous 15-minute cameos throughout film history (say for example, Marlon Brando in Superman).

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

And finally, no review of The Third Man is complete without a special mention of the stunning cinematography; in fact, as mentioned, this was the main reason Reed wanted the story set in Vienna in the first place, so he could capture the stunning views a thousand-year-old city of rubble affords. It is almost worth watching the movie just for the shots of Vienna's sewer system, where the entire last act of the film takes place; but oh, there's just so much more about this movie to enjoy as well. It's a stunning reminder of just how good and how powerful films can be in the first place, when true geniuses are simply left alone to make the brilliant projects they're capable of; it's a lesson unfortunately forgotten by modern Hollywood, and one sorely needed again if that industry wants to save itself.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.9
Acting: 9.8
Directing: 9.9
Cinematography: 10
Overall: 9.9

Random notes:

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

--For those who don't know, this is also the first movie in history to be known just as much for its soundtrack: it is the film in fact that singlehandedly introduced zither music to American and British audiences, who immediately ate it up. Soundtrack composer Anton Karas (discovered by Reed at a dinner party during shooting) ended up going on an international tour because of this film; with his earnings he bought a restaurant in Vienna and named it (what else) "The Third Man Cafe."

The Third Man, by Carol Reed

--So how did Reed capture such stunning images in the first place? Easy -- he employed three completely separate film crews (one for daytime shots, one for night, and one just for the sewers), shooting on rotation nearly 24 hours a day, Reed overseeing them all through copious use of the toxic stimulant Benzedrine. You don't see many films getting made that way anymore!

--Also for those who don't know, the sewer shots featuring Welles were all done in a London soundstage; and that's because after the first day of shooting in the actual Vienna sewers, Welles found the whole thing so disgusting and dangerous that he refused to go back down.

--Director Reed originally wanted James Stewart for the Holly Martins role; but Hollywood executive David O. Selznick, who was heading up the American half of the production, insisted on using contract star Cotton instead. Looking back now, I can't even imagine how such a movie could be made with Stewart in the bitter antihero role.

--And finally, for those who are curious, Welles actually ad-libbed what is now considered the most famous line of the movie -- "The Swiss have had peace and democracy for 500 years, and what have they produced? Cuckoo clocks."

Best viewed: As soon as possible.

Next on my queue list: The Prestige, the dark 2006 Christopher Nolan film about Victorian Age magicians, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, David Bowie, Scarlett Johansson and more. I've heard mixed things about this movie; it'll be interesting to see it finally for myself.

Read even more about The Third Man: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:13 AM, May 12, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |