The Third Man

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. 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. So long Holly.

And there we have one of the most impish, mischievous pieces of cynicism ever spoken to the camera, essentially a throwaway moment in a movie yet the one that’s most fondly remembered and perhaps best sums up the nature of the character who delivers it. The Third Man (1949) has come to be regarded not only as a classic film noir but one of the true high points of post-war British filmmaking. It remains a dazzling piece of work, urgent, energetic, inventive and beguiling. I’m of the opinion that the greatest films all share one common characteristic: they can be revisited time and again and still manage to reveal different aspects of themselves to the viewer. There’s either a richness of theme or a subtle shading of the characters that allows for a shift in perspective, meaning that as our moods or feelings change over time the films are capable of addressing or coping with that. That’s what struck me as I watched The Third Man for the umpteenth time the other day, the way I found myself responding to the characters in a different light on that occasion.

The story unfolds over a couple of days in Vienna, a city whose Hapsburg splendor has been stripped naked and ravaged by the obscenity of war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in the city breezy and brimming with confidence having been promised a job by an old friend. Holly’s friend is Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and it appears that he’s going to be some kind of publicist for a vaguely defined medical charity. And yet no sooner has Holly set foot in Vienna than he discovers that instead of coming to praise Harry, he’s come to bury him. It appears that Harry met with a sudden accident: crossing the street to speak to a friend he happened to see, Harry is run over by a truck driven by his own chauffeur before being pronounced dead by his personal physician who was passing that way by chance. All very tragic and all very convenient. But coincidence is the preserve of fiction, and it’s not long before Holly realizes that the Harry he knew was really a work of fiction too. Full of righteous indignation, Holly first believes that Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British major, is besmirching his friend’s reputation before changing tack and coming to the conclusion that Harry was actually murdered. It’s during his blundering but well-meaning “investigation” of the circumstances of Harry’s mysterious end that Holly meets his friend’s lover. Anna (Alida Valli) is an actress, beautiful, tragic and enigmatic, almost a metaphor for post-war Europe itself. With his doubts about Harry’s life and death growing larger all the time, Holly begins to fall under the brittle spell cast by Anna. As he becomes more smitten by her charms, he undergoes another change, the ultimate one. The combination of his love for Anna and his understanding of the true character of Harry leads Holly to a betrayal that’s justifiable, perhaps even desirable, on a moral level yet somehow wrong on a human level.

Much has been written about The Third Man over the years, more scholarly and in-depth analysis than I could hope to achieve so I’m not going to attempt to compete with that. The unique locations, the driven direction of Carol Reed, the iconic photography of Robert Krasker and Anton Karas’ distinctive score all blend together to create a masterpiece of unease. Visually the film captures the fragmented nature of the era where everything felt a little skewed and off-center, a hard to define sense that something isn’t quite right, that all is not really what it seems. Of course all this technical and artistic brilliance is immediately apparent the first time one sees the film, and subsequent viewings only serve to underline that quality. However, as I said at the beginning, repeated viewings have drawn my attention to other aspects of the film, namely the characterization. This comes down to the skilful writing of Graham Greene and the performances of Welles, Cotten and Valli in particular. The shadow of Welles and Harry Lime loom large over the whole production, both the character and his interpretation by Welles. For a long time I was very taken by the Harry Lime character, I guess I still am to an extent, and the fact he inspired both a radio show and a TV series proves how widespread that feeling was. But let’s be honest here, Lime was a rotten and reprehensible character, a self-absorbed sociopath without a shred of pity or decency. It’s Welles’ brilliant portrayal – the modulation of voice, the expressiveness of his features and the fleeting twinkle in the eye – that transcends all that. Had anyone else played that role, it wouldn’t have worked. At all.

However, let’s return to those shifting perspectives I alluded to earlier. While Welles and Lime dominate the movie, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the characters of Holly and Anna. Holly is, I suppose, the nominal hero, the everyman through whose eyes we see the story develop. I came to sympathize with him, with Cotten’s no-nonsense portrayal of a guy who has his illusions gradually pared away until he sees things in the cold, clear light of day. I was rooting for him, wanting him to come out on top and get the girl in the end. That masterful long shot that ends the movie used to break my heart. I could imagine myself as the poor schmo getting out of the jeep and waiting for the girl I loved to approach, and then she just walks straight on, eyes fixed ahead and indifferent. And there was Holly, alone and empty, standing awkwardly on an empty road leading to a cemetery. As I watched the film a couple of days ago I caught myself looking at it from a different angle though. This time I was thinking about Anna and the way she is actually the only one of the central trio who displays honor and true integrity. She’s come to understand that her love for Harry was misplaced, even wasted, yet that realization doesn’t invalidate its truth. It was her loyalty right to the bitter end, her implacable refusal to betray her love, both the man and the ideal, that impressed me deeply. So as I say, it’s a film of many layers and every time I see it I seem to peel away another one.

Fortunately, The Third Man is a film which is very easy to see for anyone unfamiliar with it. There are lots of editions available and most of them are attractive. I have the old 2-DVD set released in the UK some years ago which has a very strong transfer and plenty of good extra features to boot. I’ve thought about maybe upgrading to the Blu-ray as it’s a title that gives me a lot of pleasure but I remain undecided. I have a kind of unwritten rule for myself that I won’t upgrade unless I’m honestly dissatisfied with some aspect of the presentation I already own. Watching this one again, I can’t really say that I am particularly dissatisfied, so we’ll see. Anyway, we’re talking about a bona fide classic here, a film which you can return to many times and it never loses any of its freshness. If you haven’t seen it before, then do so at the earliest opportunity. And if you have, watch it again and see what grabs you this time.

Odd Man Out

Today is the third birthday of Riding the High Country, and for that reason I wanted to feature a movie that occupies a special place in my affections. Belfast isn’t a city that one would normally associate with film noir. Still and all, it’s not such an outlandish setting when you actually think about it a little. It’s a city with an especially dark past (and a future that remains far from certain for that matter) that’s seen more than its fair share of death and mayhem. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) uses the shadowy post-war city as the backdrop for a story that’s a haunting mix of tragedy, love and intrigue. It’s also a very Irish tale, and perhaps that’s why it has always resonated with me and fascinated me.

It’s the story of one man’s last hours, and how this impacts on his friends, enemies and even those who are strangers. Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the OC of the IRA in Belfast (the film never specifically identifies the name or the place, referring only to “the organisation” and “a Northern Irish city”, but that’s the what and the where in any case) who’s only recently escaped from prison. He’s been laid up in a safe house and is about to emerge again to lead a robbery. Although doubts are expressed about his suitability for the task, due to his having been out of circulation for so long, he shrugs them off and insists on going ahead with the plan. The raid proves disastrous through a combination of bad luck, physical weakness on Johnny’s part, and the incompetence and cowardice of his associates. The end result is that is a man is killed, Johnny is shot and wounded, and worst of all is abandoned on the streets of Belfast. As the light begins to fade and the temperature drops, one man sets out on his final journey around the city while the police cast their net and the avenues of escape are progressively narrowed. This torturous odyssey of a dying man takes on a dreamlike quality as he stumbles through darkly hostile backstreets and decaying tenements. Along the way he crosses paths with a motley selection of characters who respond variously with charity, pity and fear – but always with an undercurrent of suspicion and self-interest at the back of it. In a sense the film offers a sneak peak at the flip side of the Irish character that all of us born on that island know about but rarely acknowledge. The complex and frankly dangerous history of Northern Ireland, which frequently left many ordinary people caught precariously in the middle, probably intensified this. The resultant attitude was born of a combination of “whatever you say, say nothing” and “but what’s in it for me”, and was maybe the only alternative if you wanted to survive. If that all sounds a little negative, there’s something altogether finer at the heart of the picture though. Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), Johnny’s girl, is driven on not by any base interest but by her love. She knows that she has no future with this doomed fugitive, but her devotion sees her scour the snowbound city for him so she can protect him and simply be with him. When the couple eventually unite on the icy docks in the shadow of the Albert clock, with the police closing in remorselessly, it’s Kathleen who takes the only option open to her to ensure they remain together. That finale has real emotional power that refuses to fade however many times it’s viewed.

Sometimes I think it’s strange that it should be a British crew, writer and leading man that managed to get so deeply into the Irish mindset. On the other hand, maybe it takes an outsider to see people as they are and thus it’s easier for them to strip away the superficial and get to the essence. Of course, author and screenwriter F L Green was married to an Irishwoman and lived in Belfast so he did have first hand knowledge to draw upon. Carol Reed’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece is The Third Man, and that film is regarded as the cornerstone of his reputation. However, over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that Odd Man Out is the better movie. Stylistically, both films use  similar techniques –  disconcertingly tilted angles, deep shadow, and a forbidding city as a backdrop. Odd Man Out is the more intimate story though and it’s plot is simpler and more emotionally involving, which gives it the edge for me. James Mason is simply immense as the dead man walking, and the role of Johnny McQueen remained the one he rated highest for the rest of his life. I also feel he gave his greatest performance in what was a very difficult part, conveying an enormous amount of pathos and emotion with only minimal dialogue. It’s heartbreaking to see this shambling figure shunted from person to person, with the only thought in most of their heads being how to get shot of this burden before disaster befalls them too. Kathleen Ryan’s work is memorable too as the only person who actually cares for Johnny. The scene in the priest’s house when she talks of her love and how it has consumed her totally is exceptionally moving and all the more effective and credible due to her understated acting. I’ve already mentioned the powerful finale and it’s worth noting that the restraint of both Mason and Ryan contributes significantly to its success. The rest of the cast is dominated by fine Irish character players with strong theatrical backgrounds. A few notable exceptions are William Hartnell as a nervy barman, and Robert Newton as a half-crazed artist bent on painting Johnny’s portrait in order to capture the truth about life as seen through the eyes of a dying man. Newton’s performance is probably the weakest part of the whole film, being far too hammy and ostentatious. The location filming in Belfast adds to the authenticity of the picture and Robert Krasker managed to capture the threatening feel of the city by night. As a footnote, it’s also worth mentioning that the Crown Bar featured in the film (although the interiors were actually a pretty accurate studio reproduction) still exists and looks the same. It’s across the street from the Europa, Europe’s most bombed hotel, and I drank there many times when I lived in Belfast as a student.

The UK DVD of Odd Man Out from Network is a wonderful presentation. It sports one of the best B&W transfers out there with deep, rich blacks and excellent contrast. It’s also loaded with quality extras including a documentary on Mason, an archive interview with the star, the script and a gallery. There’s also a 24 page booklet by Steve Rogers which is very detailed and full of great stills and advertising material. This title was also available as part of Optimum’s James Mason Collection, but I have no idea how that disc stacks up, and anyway it looks as though the Optimum set has gone or is about to go out of print. This film is one of my all-time favourites and I can’t praise it highly enough. Apart from the startling visuals and heartfelt performances, it’s notable that this picture succeeds in rising above the political minefield of its setting to tell a marvellously human story that’s not afraid of probing the darkness before ending on a note of hopeful tragedy…and that’s about as Irish a paradox as you can get. If you haven’t seen this film yet then you’ve been missing out on a piece of cinema that is exceptionally fine.


The Man Between

Having successfully treated audiences to the story of an innocent abroad in a war ravaged European city in The Third Man, director Carol Reed attempted to recapture some of that magic four years later with The Man Between (1953). That he didn’t quite manage to do so shouldn’t be seen as too harsh a criticism; while this film never achieves the consistency of style or suspense of his earlier work it still rates as a very fine movie.

Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) arrives in a devastated post-war Berlin to visit her brother Martin, a British army officer, and his new German wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Right from the beginning there is a sense that something is not quite right in this relationship, although the overworked husband appears blissfully unaware of any problems. With Bettina receiving mysterious telephone calls and messages Susanne’s suspicions are aroused. When the two women take in a visit to the Eastern zone (this was in the days before the wall went up), and just happen to run into an old acquaintance of Bettina’s, Susanne becomes convinced that her sister in law is having an affair. Ivo Kern (James Mason) is a charming yet ambiguous figure who has emerged from Bettina’s past and threatens to sabotage her future. However, despite early indications, the story is not some hackneyed love triangle with Ivo as the man between Bettina and her husband. That somewhat slow and predictable build-up is swept aside when the altogether more stylish second half of the film reveals itself to be a tense Cold War thriller that had merely been lurking in the shadows. As we learn who and what Ivo really is the movie develops into a cat and mouse chase through a bleak and menacing East Berlin.

Carol Reed had just made two bona fide masterpieces in Odd Man Out and The Third Man prior to The Man Between. The fact that this film featured the star of the former and a theme and setting similar to the latter often lead to its being judged more harshly than might normally be the case. Placed next to those two great works it does pale, but then most movies would. However, taken on its own terms, this film has much to recommend it. All the way through there is the distinctive visual style of Reed – tilted angles and deep shadow. The second half in particular takes the viewer on a tour of the city at night, a dark, dangerous place where friends are few and those deceptively close border crossings are always just out of reach. What saves the film from growing moribund in the first half, and adds to the tension and poignancy of the second half, are the performances of the two leads. Mason was a pastmaster at playing flawed and tarnished heroes, and his Ivo Kern is a fine creation. He is a man caught between past and present, East and West, self interest and honour. Claire Bloom, in a very early role, takes a character who starts out as a portrait of middle class primness and gradually develops her into a young woman on the cusp of maturity, learning bit by bit that her preconceptions about both herself and the world around her might not be as clear cut as they first appear. I’d also like to give a mention to the frankly excellent score by John Addison; it has a melancholy romanticism that lingers long in the memory.

If you’re looking to find The Man Between on DVD there are two choices available at the moment. I have the German edition from Kinowelt and it provides a very good transfer with optional subs that are removable via the main menu. The print is in fine condition with good contrast and blacks and no noticeable damage. The film is presented in Academy ratio and, although I’m certainly no expert on such matters, that looks correct to me. I mention this because the other option is the edition available in the UK from Optimum in their James Mason Icons set. While I don’t own that disc I do know that it presents the film in widescreen format, and I’m not convinced that that’s how it should be seen. It is notoriously difficult to pin down the correct aspect ratio for British films of this vintage as the UK wasn’t quite up to speed with the US in adopting widescreen. Apart from that, the framing on the German DVD just looks right, with no apparent cropping at the sides and no extraneous space at the top or bottom. Looked at in context, The Man Between is lesser Reed but, if you can put aside comparisons with his more celebrated works, it still makes for entertaining and rewarding viewing.