Monday, September 04, 2006

THE THIRD MAN - a personal appreciation

What can I say about THE THIRD MAN that has not already been said by film critics of greater talent over the decades? It's the British film-noir par excellence and was recently named as the best British film ever made by the British Film Institute*. It picked up awards at Cannes and the Oscars on original release and is viewed by most cineastes as a must-have DVD. Just google the title and you'll come up with a wealth of erudite appreciation.

Well, perhaps I can add a point of information. A newly restored print of THE THIRD MAN is doing the rounds of art cinemas in the UK. As the movie was originally released in 1949, this is likely the first chance fans of the movie will have to see it on the big screen. And boy is it worth it. If ever a movie was made for a cinematic release it is THE THIRD MAN, with its Oscar-winning black and white expressionist photography - all sharp contrast and distorted camera angles.

The other thing I can add is a sort of personal appreciation - an explanation of why THE THIRD MAN is important to me. Years before I started hanging out with R.I.A.K.s** on an almost permanent basis, my only mental images of Vienna were those given to me by cinematographer Robert Krasker in THE THIRD MAN. It was the first movie I watched where I actually noticed the deliberate use of the camera, which I guess influenced the fact that I later studied cinematography rather than cinema history or anything more "soft". This was not your usual bland glossy Hollywood flick. Vienna was all shadowy cobblestone streets and filthy sewers, accompanied by that demented repetitive zither music from Anton Karas. When I finally made it to Vienna I was somewhat disappointed to find it was rather Habsburg Disney - all fairy snow or stunning sunshine. Of course, that didn't stop me scaring myself silly on rides at the Prater or taking the Third Man Tour of the Sewers. I did this about an hour before attending the Concordia Ball, much to my more civilised friends' bemusement.

But more importantly, for me THE THIRD MAN was one of the signposts along the way to growing up. By which I mean, the moment at which you stop thinking that James Bond is how spies are and that the world is essentially A-okay. To quote John le Carre: "I despise Bond. I despise the short answer to the perfectly made world." It started off with reading a lot of Graham Greene, who also wrote the script to THE THIRD MAN, because his sort of uncomfortable Catholicism fitted a lot better to my experience than the usual hagiography you're forced to read as a kid. Once you realise that a whisky priest - an alcoholic with a mistress - can be the Good Catholic Hero - all doors are open. And then I started reading John le Carre, mainly because he went to my old college and apparently one of the old tutors there used to recruit for MI5. Both Greene and le Carre write books about the way the world is, not how it might be in some Boys Own Adventure. And both have a great sense of the absurd. Both deal with the clash of ideology and pragmatism and those grey areas of morality. They also both knew Kim Philby, who was allegedly Greene's model for THE THIRD MAN's most famous character, Harry Lime.

Harry Lime, played in an outstanding cameo by Orson Welles, is a racketeer. A man who has no morality but a profit motive. He has made money in post-war Vienna by running goods from one side to the next and is really rather proud of his hard-headed pragmatism. He lays out his life philosophy in an infamous speech at the Prater: "Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." It's a sort of Satanic argument for meritocracy and the advance of man. Utterly chilling and yet very, very charming.

This is basically what Kim Philby was meant to be like. Kim was one of the "Cambridge Spies" who betrayed British and American secrets to the Russians from the 1930s up until the 50s, was it?, when Philby was caught and shipped off to Moscow. By this point he was very senior in the British secret service. Le Carre's take seems to be that Philby was basically on the make. In an interview, he said: "Philby had an innate disposition to deceive that preceded his Marxism. But his Marxism was a rationalisation, which came later. His deceitful nature derived over-whelming vanity about his own worth."

What does all this have to do with THE THIRD MAN? Well, for me, THE THIRD MAN is a story of a young man who comes to Vienna, to quote le Carre again, in the spirit of John Buchan and leaves it in the spirit of Kafka. The movie tells us how that happened. The hero of the story is Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) - a young innocent American writer of pulp fiction. He has been summoned by his old friend Harry Lime with the promise of employment, but he arrives to find Harry dead. Still, he is offered some work as a lecturer so hangs around, probing into the circumstances of his friend's demise. As he pokes around he hears several versions of the event and discovers that there is a Third Man who cannot be accounted for. To cut a long story short - SPOILER - Holly is disabused of his innocence and falls in love with Harry's old girlfriend who is entirely indifferent to him. He also, dramatically, finds that Harry faked his own death to escape the people after him.

Like I said, there are plenty of people who will tell you how great THE THIRD MAN is. They are not wrong, and any chance to see it on the big screen is not to be missed. For me it will always be the quintessential great film about the loss of innocence and about the charismatic nature of amorality. As a young kid of around twelve, this movie mapped out for me what the world was really about. As they say, the devil has all the best lines. Still, again to paraphrase le Carre, I'd rather be Holly's kind of fool, than Harry's.

*The British Film Institute's Top 20 British films list is: 1. The Third Man. 2.
Brief Encounter. 3. Lawrence of Arabia. 4. 39 The 39 Steps (Hitckcock's version.) 5. Great Expectations. 6. Kind Hearts and Coronets. 7. Kes. 8. Don't Look Now. 9. The Red Shoes. 10. Trainspotting. 11. The Bridge on the River Kwai. 12. If...13. The Ladykillers. 14. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. 15. Brighton Rock. 16. Get Carter. 17. The Lavender Hill Mob. 18. Olivier's Henry V. 19. Chariots of Fire. 20. A Matter of Life and Death.

**Random Inter-changeable Austro-Krauts. (A friend of mine wishes a correction to Austro-Struedels. However, RIASs is less catchy.)

THE THIRD MAN originally showed at Cannes 1949 where it won the Grand Prize. It is currently on re-release in the UK in a shiny new print. The old print is available on DVD.

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