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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: The Third Man

THE THIRD MAN (Four Stars)

U.K.; Carol Reed, 1949

In The Third Man—probably the greatest British movie thriller of the postwar era—director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene surround an intense fable of moral corruption with a cinematic world of near-Byzantine visual and psychological complexity: the streets and ruins of post-war Vienna. It is a Vienna that has been through Hell and remains in Purgatory, a city of darkness far removed from the rollicking erotics of Ernst Lubitsch’s film comedies or the wistful elegance and melancholy beauty of Max Ophüls‘ movie romances. Decadence and rot have seeped into the city’s very soul, poisoned it, left almost nothing unstained — least of all the movie‘s “heroes“ and protagonists. (This first major restoration of The Third Man is at Los Angeles’ Nuart, the Film Forum in Manhattan and will expand around the country.)

This Vienna is a movie milieu as densely evocative and as emotionally harrowing as Curtiz’s Casablanca or Sternberg’s Morocco. Yet, unlike those two studio classics, it is primarily the real Vienna that the filmmakers show us here: the real streets, the real war-torn buildings, the real rubble — shot by Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker in such a striking style (with almost constant off-angle compositions, deep, deep focus and wide-angle lens distortions), that it all takes on a patina of nightmare.

Through this macabre landscape—over which Anton Karas’ legendary zither score jangles with ironic jauntiness—Greene and Reed’s dark tale unwinds with a suave, sinister perfection. We watch, probably spellbound (I was, at any rate), as a naïve and foolishly romantic American hack novelist, Holly Martins (a specialist in formula genre westerns, who cites his major literary influence, without irony,  as Zane Grey), pursues the murderers of his lifelong best friend, Harry Lime. Holly, maddeningly and lovably inept at almost everything a movie hero should do or be, spars testily with the embittered, cynical British police major, Calloway; hunts for the mysterious “third man” who may have witnessed Harry’s death; and falls hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Harry’s mistress, the beautiful, beleaguered Anna Sdhmidt, trapped by Calloway and the police bureaucracy. Finally, in two symbolic settings—the Ferris wheel towering above the city, and the shadowy chaos of the sewers beneath it—Holly comes face to face with the supreme evil and the supreme betrayal: both Harry’s and his own.

The Third Man is one of those rare film classics that captured its audience almost immediately and was regarded as a masrwepiwxw almost from its first release. The movie marks one of those unusual conjunctions of script, director, subject, cast and setting—and, of course, music—in which everything meshes, everything works.

Graham Greene’s script, which he first wrote as an unpublished short novel, is one of the all-time masterworks of original screenwriting — a brilliant psychological thriller and an unforgettable evocation of the post-war European battleground of urban international good and evil, with just the right proportions of drama, atmosphere, action, tension and rich character, all faultlessly constructed by the hand of a master. Or several masters.

This was the second of three film collaborations between Greene and Reed — Greene’s favorite movie director, and an artist he greatly preferred to his own personal bête noir, Alfred Hitchcock — and it’s the crowning ultimate work for both men. Their other two joint efforts, both good but both flawed to some degree, are 1948’s The Fallen Idol (from a short story) and 1959’s Our Man in Havana (from a novel). But there’s nothing much wrong with The Third Man, even if the world it describes is wrong to the core and bad to the bone. It is arguably the finest single work of any kind or genre Greene made, and the best of the more than 70 films in which he was involved in some capacity. Until somebody makes a more faithful film or TV adaptation of Greene’s great novel “A Gun for Sale” (a.k.a. “This Gun for Hire”), which has been botched or bungled or miscast several times, but is a film noir masterpiece waiting to happen, The Third Man will probably hold its position, as a sort of Citizen Kane of film noir. And Greene will retain his own place as (how he would have hated the title!) the Alfred Hitchcock of Beitish screenwriters and script sources.

The script is a matchless wonderful job, and all the other components of The Third Man  more than worthy of it. Krasker’s and Reed’s visuals are the absolute peak of black-and-white  film noir style; one watches them rapt, mo matter how many times you’ve seen the film. The acting ensemble is superb, with the mix of Americans and Europeans in the cast creating an ideal balance: Trevor Howard as the pragmatic, saddened, yet brutally unsparing Calloway; Bernard Lee (James Bond’s M himself)  as the gentle Sergeant Paine, who loves Holly’s books; Wilfred Hyde-White as Crabbin, the slightly addled literary entrepreneur; Ernst Deutsch as the sinister, ferrety “Baron” Kurtz; Alida Valli, exuding fatalistic romance as Anna; and those two refugees and best friends from Citizen Kane, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, as the two old friends torn asunder, the dark side and the light, Harry and Holly—their names so similar Anna often confuses them.

Welles’ relatively brief performance as Harry Lime is perfection itself: the bemused, lightly condescending, affectionate look with which he greets Holly; the murderous fluency of his Machiavellian story of the Borgias and the cuckoo clock (a disparaging comparative analysis of the artistic benefits of tyranny and democracy, that Welles himself wrote); or his wild desperation as he flounders in the sewer, with Holly, Calloway and the police after him. This is magnificent, highly charged film acting, by a nonpareil actor, perfectly cast.

Because the two great set pieces in The Third Man—the Ferris wheel confrontation and the chase through the sewers—both are designed around Welles, and because they’re both shot with the kind of weirdly angled grandiloquence and impudent virtuosity for which he’s always been noted, there’s  a temptation to believe that Welles directed them, and maybe the rest of the film  as well.

But, essential and invaluable as Welles’ performance and contributions were, the main directorial triumph here is Reed’s. He is the hero, and the dominating influence—insisting to producer Alexander Korda that the picture be shot on location in Vienna; insisting that Welles play Harry Lime over David Selznick’s forceful nomination of Noel Coward for the part; resisting Selznick’s usual indefatigable memos and attempted “Americanization” of the script; discovering Anton Karas and his zither in a tiny beer and sausage restaurant (“The Third Man Theme” became a major hit record of its bygone day); and finally, rejecting even Graham Greene’s suggestion of a climatic rapprochement between Anna and Holly. Ironically, there is a famous moment in Welles’ performance that is Reed’s too: Harry Lime’s hands, reaching desperately through the sewer grating, fingers flailing in the windy night air, actually belong to a temporary stand-in—Carol Reed, the director.)

Yet, perhaps Carol Reed took too seriously the suggestion that Welles’ hand lay somewhere as much as his in The Third Man. He never again caught the peculiar and vibrant visual stylization, the special near-Wellesian “look” that helps makes this film and Reed‘s earlier Odd Man Out such stunning experiences. (Not everyone was stunned, of course. The more stable William Wyler, after watching The Third Man, presented Reed with a spirit level, to place on his camera next time, preventing  angle shots.)

This was the one time Reed, as a director, reached perfection; and he did it as much by assembling and marshaling a brilliantly talented company as by the power of his own vision. Together he and Greene—and Welles, Cotten, Howard, Valli, Karas, Krasker, Korda and all the others—created a portrait of postwar corruption and the death of idealism that has lodged ever since in our collective consciousness. Together, they made a rich, moody masterpiece of guilt, love, and ambivalent redemption — a wondrous fable-ballad-thriller of good and evil and the points between

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Most of this article was originally written for The Criterion Collection’s box notes on their original video release of The Third Man.

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Wilmington

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin