Saturday, April 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Third Man (1949)

On Sunday 3 April, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club will feature the iconic postwar noir-espionage suspense thriller, *The Third Man*. And I very much hope you'll plan to join us for this classic Carol Reed / Orson Welles movie that launched careers in writing, acting, and film criticism -- on two continents -- and just for good measure awakened a war-weary American cinema-going public to the grim geography of Soviet adventurism on the European continent. 

Joseph Cotten is Holly Martins, a recently furloughed magazine stringer and sometime-novelist who accepts a sight-unseen job offer in Vienna from his dear old friend Harry Lime, only to arrive to the news that Lime perished under mysterious circumstances that very day. Unpersuaded by the official version of his friend's supposedly accidental death, Martins declines repeated entreaties to leave town, in favour of digging ever deeper and ever less officially into the story. Along the way he crosses paths -- and sometimes purposes -- with the aggrieved British occupation supervisor Major Calloway (played with impeccable reservation and understatement by Trevor Howard) and Lime's most recent flame, local pretty-girl Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli). 

Circumstances quickly elude Martins on a host of fronts so numerous that the issue of his friend's suspicious death almost, but never quite, recedes from his perception. By turns Martins finds himself roundly heckled at a book-reading, challenged with possible arrest for his refusal to abide by Calloway's demands, and embroiled semi-willingly in a dark and not altogether promising plot to shield Ms Schmidt from her appointment with forced repatriation to the Soviet quarter of the city. And all the while, the mosquito that just won't give Martins the surcease he needs to sort out any of it, is a single muttered line from his dead friend's upstairs neighbour. Yes, the two men who rushed to the accident scene took away Lime's body, just as Martins had been told by others. Yes. But there was a third man. 

To say that the screenplay for this film was the breakthrough that made Graham Greene would be a mis-truth of the highest order. Greene had by this time already published several successful novels and was well on his way to finishing two others simultaneously. But somehow it seems much less dishonest to say that the Titanic accomplishment of this film's ping-it-with-a-finger dialogue and dread-soaked statecraft intrigue marked the moment that really *gave* us Graham Greene. There would have been another Ministry of Fear or Rumour at Nightfall, even without the breakthrough genre defiance that this film represents, probably -- but it's difficult to see how there would ever have been a Quiet American or an Our Man in Havana or even an End of the Affair. For this alone, The Third Man deserves credit as one of the more important pictures we have seen. 

Beyond the acting and the direction and the script, the film is perhaps best known as the apotheosis of the so-called "Dutch Angle" method of cinematography, where symbolically important shots are intentionally and sometimes unnervingly framed off true, generally when the narrative significance of the moment suggests, as it were, the opposite of the slant that the cinematography conveys. The technique had been tried and proven in films before this one, and it went on to enjoy a phase of middling cachet afterward, but no one captured the spirit of the idea like Robert Krasker did with The Third Man, and more than one elite cinematographer went on to wonder why any of the rest of them had ever even tried. 

The reception -- both public and critical -- was all but literally thunderstruck. The Third Man was the highest grossing film in Britain in 1949 by a factor of almost 30% despite being released there in mid-September, and in the United States the critics began hailing the Welles/Reed collaboration even before the film was finished, and have literally never stopped in over seventy years since. Writing for Time Magazine in the year of its release, Bosley Crowther described it as "crammed with cinematic plums that would do the early Hitchcock proud—ingenious twists and turns of plot, subtle detail, full-bodied bit characters, atmospheric backgrounds that become an intrinsic part of the story, a deft co-mingling of the sinister with the ludicrous, the casual with the bizarre." In 1996, a mere forty-seven years later, Roger Ebert said, "Of all the movies that I have seen, The Third Man is the one that most completely embodies the shared and simple romance of going to the movies."

I hope that everyone will plan to join us in celebrating our own shared and simple romance of going to the movies, Sunday 3 April, at 6:31 PM. That shady and mysterious third man you've heard so much about is out there somewhere, waiting to tell his wholly unexpected tale. But he can't so much as clear his throat to start until we've calmed our fussy self-distractions and our durably naive insistence that everything must surely be exactly as it seems, and agreed to hear him out.  

No comments: