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.

 

 

Advertisements

Ride a Crooked Trail

Anyone who has been a regular, or even occasional, visitor to this site will be aware of my fondness for westerns of the 1950s. And even a cursory glance through the various pieces I’ve written on these movies will reveal a particular term that crops up again and again – redemption. It was the overriding theme of westerns of the period and there’s no getting away from it. Such a concept inevitably involves a form of atonement for sins of the past and/or a coming to terms with the pain of the present. Superficially, revisiting this theme may appear either grim or formulaic, but I’ve found that this is rarely the case. It really boils down to the approach adopted by the filmmakers and the spin they put on it all. Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) is at heart another tale examining the journey towards redemption but comes at it from a slightly unexpected angle, a refreshingly lighthearted one.

The movie hits the ground running, literally. The first image is of a rider galloping across open country, with another horseman hot on his heels. As the pursuer smoothly unsheathes and fires his rifle the fugitive has his mount shot out from under him. Scrambling to his feet, he scurries off towards the protection of rocks and high ground. But it’s an illusory form of shelter masking a precipitous drop into a deep chasm. Still this man is nothing if not lucky as a misstep by his hunter sees him plunge over the edge to his death. The fugitive is the wonderfully named Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy), a would-be bank robber running from the law. Taking the dead man’s gear with him, he rides into the nearest town and immediately finds himself in a tricky situation. In the absence of a marshal the shotgun-toting Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) is the sole representative of the law and just happens to be on the lookout for a wanted man by the name of Joe Maybe. Just as it looks as though our hero has leaped from the frying pan into the fire, another stroke of dubious good fortune arises. The man whose outfit he took possession of happened to be a marshal of some repute by the name of Noonan, known far and wide for his distinctive broken star badge. Kyle, whose penchant for dispatching miscreants with his shotgun is matched only by his fondness for the whiskey bottle, automatically assumes that Joe is actually Noonan and welcomes him warmly. In fact, he duly appoints Joe town marshal and seems thrilled to have his burden lightened. Joe is initially reluctant to run with this masquerade but, ever the opportunist, sees the potential for an easy score in a trusting town that’s soon to be swimming in money from the trail drives. Yet complications soon appear: the arrival of an old acquaintance, Tessa (Gia Scala), signals both temptation and imminent danger. Tessa’s lover is Sam Teeler (Henry Silva), a ruthless type also eying the lucrative prize in the bank vault. And on top of this the gradually dawning suspicion of Kyle, the kindness of the townsfolk and the adoration of an orphaned boy all begin to prick at Joe’s conscience.

 Ride a Crooked Trail was scripted by the prolific Borden Chase, a writer whose work often wove lighter elements into generally serious stories. While this film isn’t a comedy there are strong comedic aspects, especially evident in the arch, knowing dialogue and the innuendo-rich circumstances surrounding Joe’s enforced domestic arrangements. As I said at the beginning, everything revolves around Joe’s path towards redemption. There’s adversity to be overcome and ghosts to be laid, but the performances, Chase’s script and Jesse Hibbs’ direction all add a sense of warmth to the film that sets it a little apart from other variations on this traditional theme. Where many other 50s westerns trade on intensity, fatalism or psychological complexity, Ride a Crooked Trail has heart and sincerity.

I get the impression that Audie Murphy tends to be viewed as a kind of standard western hero, a straight arrow if you like with the minimum of complexity. However, his best performances, and there are more of those than many would have you believe, point out the fallacy in that assumption. Murphy was a man deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the heroic image and clean-cut looks helped disguise that. When the occasion or role demanded he was able to channel a degree of ambiguity and in Ride a Crooked Trail we see some of that beneath the surface good humor. Even the name of his character, Joe Maybe, is suggestive of moral ambivalence. I think one of the best scenes in the movie is the quiet little interlude where Murphy chats with the orphan about growing up alone, the judgments made based on dubious ancestry and the road one is expected to follow. As it develops we learn more about Joe’s own past and even the origin of his curious name, although I think the explanation of the latter would actually have been better left unsaid. Either way, it’s an affecting and subtle little scene well-played by Murphy. The film also benefits from fine support from Walter Matthau and Gia Scala. Matthau was an immensely talented comic actor and I feel he struck the right balance here between comedy and drama, the judge coming across as simultaneously sardonic, ornery and cunning. The private life of Irish-Italian actress Gia Scala was one of those Hollywood tragedies, a sensitive beauty whose shyness led to alcohol problems and an early death. On screen though she was sassy and confident, and more than held her own with Murphy and Matthau. Now if ever a man was born to play villains, then it was surely Henry Silva. The man had a real knack for portraying menace, and it’s too bad he doesn’t get more screen time in this film.

At one time Ride a Crooked Trail wasn’t the easiest film to track down on DVD but it’s now fairly widely available in the US and Europe – incidentally, I see that a company called 101 Films have this title along with a raft of other Universal westerns up for pre-order at Amazon UK. I have the German edition released by Koch and it’s a typically strong effort. The anamorphic scope transfer is colorful and detailed and displays little in the way of damage. There’s the choice of viewing the movie with the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles of any kind to worry about. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer, a gallery and an inlay leaflet in German. In many ways this can be seen as a typical late 50s western, which is far from being a bad thing, but the lighter, warmer atmosphere gives it an extra bit of charm in my eyes. I don’t think I’d place it up with the very best Audie Murphy westerns but it’s still a strong piece of work, and I reckon it’s a rewarding film to watch.

Readers Choice 3

I reckon it’s time to feature another Audie Murphy western and I’ve narrowed it down to two options. Seeing as it’s been a while since I offered readers a chance to cast a vote for what they’d like to see, I thought it was a good opportunity to run a poll. The choice is between Tumbleweed (1953) and Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). I’ll leave the poll open until midnight on Saturday and will go with the majority decision. Take your pick people.

Movie Adaptations

Where do our favorite movies come from? A fair few have been, and continue to be, the result of original scripts but many are adaptations. While a modern movie may credit a play, a TV show, a comic book, or even a video game as its source, the most traditional inspiration came from the pages of novels and stories. Now there’s an obvious advantage built in here – screenwriters have a fully formed narrative from which they can work. On the other hand, this also imposes certain limitations on creativity, depending on how faithful to or respectful of the original writer’s work it’s considered important to be. The greatest difficulties, from the perspective of the filmmakers, tend to rear up when the work being adapted is particularly well-known or well-regarded. Fans of the author or story have a habit of getting up in arms if they sense the filmmakers are straying too far, either in terms of plot or spirit, from their beloved piece of writing.

Yet that is a situation which is virtually unavoidable. When you get right down to it, we’re talking about different media here, with different aims and different aesthetics. Something which proves successful on the printed page may not, for a whole variety of reasons, translate well to the cinema screen. That may be a consequence of the narrative structure not being especially cinematic – lack of pace and urgency, too great a sweep, or too much stream of consciousness. The point here is that changes, maybe major ones, are frequently not only desirable but also entirely necessary for an adaptation to work on the big screen.

It also begs the question of what exactly constitutes a good source for cinematic adaptation. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that very often it’s safe to say that the more worthy or respected the book, the less satisfactory the resultant movie is. Generally speaking, that is. Hemingway was one of the finest writers of the 20th century, perhaps even the finest, yet the adaptations of his writing have all been somewhat lacking. F Scott Fitzgerald is another who could be said to have suffered a similar fate. Frankly, I’m sure we could all name plenty of renowned writers who have been poorly served by the films their work inspired. Conversely, there are countless highly entertaining, and sometimes artistically impressive, films derived from the kind of pulp writing I’m sure even its creators would cheerfully admit never aspired to being regarded as great literature. So those are my questions for anyone who cares to tackle them: What do think are the best literary adaptations? And why does the anomaly of poor books leading to good films, and vice-versa, exist?