#215. The Third Man (1949)

Joseph Cotten plays a novelist here, a writer of westerns, and he’s not unbelievable in that respect but I was a little surprised that he didn’t get some monologue here about The Craft: the solitude, the self-doubt, the communion his work affords him with his fellow man. Campy stuff that writer characters always talk about in movies. Stephen King mentions in his memoir that a budding fiction writer would be wise to do a lot of research into the profession of her main character, because readers love behind-the-scenes details about how jobs work, and I’m definitely one of those readers, especially when it comes to writer-characters for some reason. It’s like a plumber reading about a plumber — you’d think I’d be tired of it, but I’m not. Or it’s kinda like my brother watching ESPN talk shows all day: there’s something pleasant in just hearing a bunch of people talk avidly about your passion. I get a voyeur’s thrill in learning about other writers’ processes. Maya Angelou working exclusively in hotels, Mark Twain in bathtubs, Hemingway rising before dawn to write 500 widely-spaced words at a standing desk. Everything these writer-characters speak in movies are, of course, penned by writers, so they’re usually on-point about it, but also prone to romanticizing it (I think my favorite writer character in a movie is James Caan in Misery, one of the few on-screen writers who doesnt wax eloquent about the glory of the gig).

            No question, though, that if Orson Welles had palyed the lead character here instead of the eponymous, seldom-seen, mysterious Third Man (Harry Lime), we’d have been treated to at least two such monologues. He’d have dropped the three new pages on director Carol Reed’s desk and wriggled every word of it, unedited, into the final cut. Welles allegedly wrote his character’s famous ferris wheel monologue where, looking down on the crowds of people rendered – from that height – into little dots, he asks his friend, Joseph Cotton, if he would really be all that concerned about the well-being of a dot if, in exchange for their death, he were well-paid.

            The Third Man is about an ostensibly washed-up writer, Holly, who drinks too much and needs work. He’s invited by his friend Harry to come over to postwar Vienna for some work and camaraderie. When Holly arrives, he learns that Harry’s just died. Got hit by a car while hanging out with a couple friends. But then a witness claims to’ve seen a third man tending Harry at the scene of his death. But all official reports say there were only two. And so begins our mystery.

            Lots of tilted (“dutch”) angles in this movie, perhaps a kinda visual symbol for postwar Vienna, everything being a little off its axis, disordered. The winding brick streets where everybody goes about their business as usual are flanked with the ruins of bombed buildings, sprawling piles of brick and lumber. There’s a great shot of Harry Lime trotting over these ruins in the final chase sequence, in his discreet black outfit and hat, and it’s one of the shots that — while it serves a more utilitarian purpose of just showing an interesting chase sequence — can also work as a kind of metaphor for postwar Vienna. Shadowy people trotting, on a quiet night, over the vestiges of the previous world. A new one is beginning, and it’s a criminal one. The criminals are spread farther, their schemes are more devious, and they’re harder to catch.

I’m reading Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy at the moment, I’m about a quarter of the way through the final volume, and it’s mindblowing just how complicated the whole cartel situation is: it involves the Irish mob in the beginning, one massive Mexican cartel with tons of infighting that then fractures into several cartels, there’s collusion with governments and police forces and shell companies. I’m reading it and it’s so modern, it’s talking about things that I remember seeing in the news just a few years ago, and the good/bad isn’t black/white. There are so many shades of gray. Necessary corruption. Justifiable collateral damage. Ahdunno — it’s complicated.

But so I put those books down and then I return to the List and find that movies from the 1930s and ’40s were laden with no such ambiguities. The bad guys were consummately corrupt, the good guys anointed by God. I think one aspect of Third Man‘s innovation as a major British film is the idea of complicated crime. Crimes that are heinous, sure, but they’re committed by villains who are charming, handsome, guys who have friends and who can be friendly and whose crimes involved the exploitation of loopholes, the preying on unseen victims in another land. I feel like I’m not wording this well.

Just that there’s something about postwar cinema that feels more worldly, ever more conscious of other nationalities and also of moral ambiguity.

Ahdunno — what’s tricky about discussing The Third Man is it’s also the kinda movie that you wanna say smart things about, especially because there are all these striking images that seem to suggest so very much. It’s a movie that’s laden with suggestion. A feeling of depth. But that depth kinda eludes language, description. Which isn’t to say that it’s superficial, just that it’s maybe…consummately cinematic. It’s got the quality of a kiss, or really passionate sex: a feeling that’s too strong and nebulous to be communicated through language and so needs some sort of gesture.

            Carol Reed directed one other picture on the List up to now, Odd Man Out with James Mason, and that too was a crime story involving a man on the run, in a European country in a tumultuous time, and it strafed the streets of a dark and ambient city. Reed’s work (such as it appears on the List) is gritty and stylish. Like a road worker in a tux.

            I’ve heard this movie talked about, revered, a scrillion times between high school and now, so I went into it feeling a pang of dread at the idea of writing something that lines up with the occasion. But finally it’s just a very terrific, artful, heartfelt movie, a mystery/thriller, and I’m reading essays about it from the likes of Scorsese and Ebert, and critics using it as a springboard to talk for a bit about postwar Vienna, but finally I feel like they’re just teaching me trivia about the production.

What I’ve actually most enjoyed reading about Third Man is the account of its production as conveyed by Simon Callow in the third volume of his ongoing Orson Welles biography, One Man Band, where he talks about how this was one of the few instances where Welles, who just needed a quick bitta cash and signed onto the project with no particular amount of respect for it, found himself unable to talk his way into doing whatever he wanted. Carol Reed understood Welles’s ego, and whenever Welles suggested something he would pretend to take it under deep consideration and would later find some courteous way of explaining why, unfortunately, it couldn’t be executed. One brilliant concession: when Welles wrote his own monologue for the end of his encounter with Holly, after riding in a ferris wheel, it became the most memorably exchange in the movie and, to date, remains one of the most iconic monologues in cinema.

You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

            There isn’t some deep mystery to unearth about the movie in order to enjoy it. Don’t be intimidated. It’s visually striking, especially in the long chase scene at its end (one of those how’d-he-do-it blends of style and action — a pairing of phenomenally difficult things that require genius of both director and editor), and it’s cleverly-plotted and well-acted and the cumulative effect is enough to move you. There’s a ton of commentary about the genius of this movie, and about the intelligence of its story and style, but it’s not so high-brow a flick as the commentary’d have you think. It’s interesting to watch this so soon after The Red Shoes, which also probably makes its strongest impression on the basis of look over story, but The Third Man isn’t trying to enchant the viewer. Reed seems like he’s trying to tell a story, first and foremost, and to work as much visual flourishes and trickery as possible along the way — but visual tricks that’ll enhance the story and not distract from it.   

            It’s a flick that’s clearly intended to be a good 100-minute romp. Surely it warrants all of the serious critical analysis it’s garnered over the years but, again, rest assured that it’s a movie for you too.

            Don’t be discouraged.

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