Monday, January 25, 2010

The Third Man (1949)

Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?

Harry Lime
: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.
~The Third Man (1949)
Thus the disregard of sociopath Harry Lime (Orson Welles) for human life is amply expressed. If he cannot see those whom he kills, if they are depersonalized for him by the fact that he does not witness their agony, then he is not in the least concerned by how many die through his crimes. His attitude, which has become the common attitude of modernity, is shocking to writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). It is still shocking to us (or at least it should be) especially the lighthearted way in which Harry dismisses the demise of so many "dots," all to the sound of a zither. In the words of Filmsite:
The Third Man (1949) is a visually-stylish thriller - a paranoid story of social, economic, and moral corruption in a depressed, rotting and crumbling, 20th century Vienna following World War II. The striking film-noirish, shadowy thriller was filmed expressionistically within the decadent, shattered and poisoned city that has been sector-divided along geo-political lines.

The black and white, pessimistic film is one of the greatest British thrillers of the post-war era, in the best Alfred Hitchcock tradition, and beautifully produced and directed by Britisher Carol Reed. It was voted the #1 British Film of the 20th Century by the esteemed British Film Institute (BFI). It was co-produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda and American movie mogul David O. Selznick. Because Korda gave American distribution rights to Selznick (who cut eleven minutes from the original British version), the credits of the US version include Selznick references.

This was Reed's second collaboration with British screenwriter Graham Greene (after The Fallen Idol (1948)) - a clever and original mystery tale simply evoked by one sentence written by Greene: "I saw a man walking down the Strand, whose funeral I had only recently attended." It told of a love triangle with nightmarish suspense, treachery, betrayal, guilt and disillusionment. Its two most famous sequences include the Ferris-wheel showdown high atop a deserted fairground with the famous cuckoo clock speech (written by Orson Welles), and the climactic chase through the underground network of sewers beneath the cobblestone streets.

In defiance of US producer Selznick, Reed boldly refused to cast Noel Coward in the Harry Lime role (played ultimately by Orson Welles), insisted on a downbeat ending and demanded that it be shot on-location in expressionistic, documentary-style. [Cary Grant and James Stewart were also considered for the role of naive novelist Holly Martins (named Rollo Martin originally), ultimately played by Welles' Mercury Theatre actor and Citizen Kane (1941) co-star Joseph Cotten.]

The director knew that the film's musical score could not be reflective of the traditional Old Vienna - waltz music by Strauss. Instead, it would be provided by a solo instrument -- a zither. The jaunty but haunting musical score by Viennese composer/performer Anton Karas lingers long after the film's viewing with its twangy, mermerizing, lamenting, disconcerting (and sometimes irritating) hurdy-gurdy tones. In fact, Karas' musical instrument was a leading film character and advertised as such: "He'll have you in a dither with his zither (a laptop string instrument)." The insistent, chilling music sets a mood of polarized dislocations in the world (e.g., war and play, men and children) and in the corrupted city's 'no-man's-land' environment (with its bombed out, war-torn ruins, dark and slick streets, cemeteries and sewers criss-crossing beneath the sectored zones).

Graham Greene's screenplay of The Third Man, which preceded the novella by the same name, came about in the following manner, as described by Film Forum:

Over dinner one evening, Greene shared [his] idea with producer Alexander Korda, who was hoping to persuade the writer to collaborate on another project with himself and director Carol Reed, following the trio's success with The Fallen Idol. After learning of the unique Four-Power occupation of Vienna, Korda was eager to produce a film set in the war-torn European city. Since Britain, the United States, Russia and France shared authority, the city was divided into five zones: one for each country and a central zone policed in groups of four (one representative from each power).

Intrigued by Korda's suggestion, Greene (who frequently traveled to settings of political unrest when in search of inspiration) spent two weeks there in February 1948, staying at Sacher's, a hotel reserved for military personal, which would become the residence of Holly Martins in the fictional world of The Third Man. In fact, several other of the film's settings were discovered during Greene's sojourn: the Great Wheel of the dilapidated amusement park, the Josefstadt Theatre, the Mozart Café, the Oriental nightclub and the massive Central Cemetery where Lime is twice interred. While Greene's visit provided him dramatic potential, it failed to inspire a suitable plot.

Fate intervened on Greene's second-to-last day in Vienna, when he met Charles Beauclerk, a British Intelligence officer he had met through Korda's connections with the S.I.S. He told Greene of the network of sewers snaking beneath the streets, policed by its own specialized army, not subject to the multinational zones that governed street-level Vienna. These tunnels were thus the perfect means by which a clever criminal could travel freely throughout a city choked with checkpoints. The sewers were also ripe with cinematic potential, composed of enormous vaulted tunnels and stone chambers with waterfalls, rivers and hidden passageways.

From Beauclerk, Greene also learned of the illegal market for penicillin (often diluted and rendered poisonous), which would also figure prominently in the narrative. Greene wrote in his 1980 autobiography Ways of Escape, "The research I had made into the functioning of the Four-Power occupation, my visit to an old servant of my mother's in the Russian zone, the long evenings of solitary drinking in the Oriental, none of them were wasted. I had my film."

Having post-war Vienna in a state of reconstruction as the unique set for the film came from producer Alexander Korda's own experiences. According to The Vienna Project:
The original idea came from the film's producer, Alexander Korda. Hungarian in origin, he had begun his career in Budapest as head of Corvin films immediately after World War I, after the great collapse of the Hapsburg empire, producing films first under the liberal Karolyi government and then under the communist Béla Kún regime. Arrested by the police of the incoming anti-semitic, anti-communist Horthy government, he was taken to be held and tortured in the picturesque Hotel Gellert, a fate he was rescued from by Brigadier Maurice, a British army officer who, according to Korda's nephew Michael, could be "variously described as the representative of MI-5 in Budapest, the British government's secret link to Admiral Horthy and as an adventurer, profiteer and speculator." Maurice intervened personally with Horthy and Korda left for Vienna to pursue his career as a producer, travelling first class in a wagon-lit under British protection, accompanied by his film-star wife Maria Corda. How Korda must have smiled on encountering the figure of Harry Lime, the classic cinematic adventurer, profiteer and speculator and also, in the context of post-war Vienna, very likely a spy - a legendary figure who had been conjured up for him at his own instigation.
Amid the political thriller about the ruined city is the heartbreaking love triangle. Martins loves the Russian actress Anna, who is in her turn is desperately in love with Harry, whom she thinks is dead. Why Anna loves Harry so much, or how any woman could be so doggedly devoted to such a criminal, is one of the mysteries of the film. I suppose she refuses to believe that he is what he is, which is not an unusual mindset for a woman enthralled by a charming psychopath. She is ready to sacrifice herself for Harry in complete disregard for Martins' genuine love. Martins, although he ultimately escapes death, is nevertheless yet another casualty left in Harry Lime's destructive wake. Share

1 comment:

boinky said...

one of the scams in the film was selling adulterated Penicillin, and the "victims" shown are children with brain damage because their meningitis wasn't treated correctly.

One recent film showed a similar theme, blaming big pharmacy, but ignored the elephant in the room: counterfeit and adulterated medicines which kill millions in the third world, and which mainly are manufactured in China or India.