“The Third Man” (1949)

August 11, 2009 at 7:31 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

This article on the famous Carol Reed-directed film (starring Orson Welles) comes from Michael Wilmington — Nov. 8, 1999 — from the Criterion website. This film is highly recommended…


In The Third Man—probably the greatest British thriller of the postwar era—director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene set a fable of moral corruption in a world of near-Byzantine visual complexity: the streets and ruins of occupied Vienna. It is a Vienna far removed from the rollicking erotics of Ernst Lubitsch or the wistful elegance and melancholy beauty of Max Ophüls. Decadence and rot have seeped into the city’s very soul, poisoned it, left almost nothing unstained. This Vienna is a movie milieu as densely evocative and haunting as Curtiz’s Casablanca or Sternberg’s Morocco—yet, unlike them, it is primarily the real Vienna, the real streets, the real rubble: shot by Reed and cameraman Robert Krasker in such a striking style (almost constant off-angle compositions and wide-angle lens distortions), that it takes on a patina of nightmare. Through this macabre landscape—over which Anton Karas’ legendary zither score jangles with ironic jauntiness—the tale unwinds. A naïve and foolishly romantic American novelist, Holly Martins (a specialist in Zane Grey-style westerns) pursues the murderers of his best friend, Harry Lime; spars with the cynical British police major, Calloway; hunts for the mysterious “third man” who witnessed Harry’s death; and falls hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Harry’s mistress, Anna. Finally, in two symbolic settings—a ferris wheel towering above the city, and the shadowy chaos of the sewers—Holly comes face to face with the supreme evil, the supreme betrayal: both Harry’s and his own.

The Third Man is one of those rare films that captured its audience immediately and was regarded as a classic almost from its first release. It marks one of those unusual conjunctions of script, director, subject, cast and setting—and, of course, music—in which everything works. Graham Greene’s script, based on his novel, is a brilliant evocation of the urban battleground of good and evil, with just the right proportions of drama, atmosphere, action, rich character and tense construction. The acting ensemble is superb, with the mixture of Americans and Europeans in the cast creating an ideal balance: Trevor Howard as the pragmatic and brutally unsparing Calloway; Bernard Lee as the gentle Sergeant Paine; Wilfred Hyde-White as Crabbin, the slightly addled literary entrepreneur; Ernst Deutsch as the sinister, ferrety “Baron” Kurtz; Alida Valli, exuding fatalistic romance as Anna; and those two refugees from Citizen Kane, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, as the two old friends torn asunder, the dark side and the light, Harry and Holly—their names so similar Anna often confuses them. Welles’ relatively brief performance as Harry Lime is perfection itself: the bemused, lightly condescending, affectionate look with which he greets Holly; the murderous fluency of his Machiavellian story of the cuckoo clock (which Welles himself wrote); or the wild desperation as he flounders in the sewer. This is magnificent, highly charged film acting.

Because the two great set pieces in The Third Man—the ferris wheel confrontation and the chase through the sewers—both revolve around Welles, and because they’re shot with the kind of weirdly angled grandiloquence and impudent virtuosity for which he’s noted, there’s been a temptation to believe that he directed them. Invaluable as Welles’ contributions and performance were, the directorial triumph is Reed’s. He is the hero, and dominating influence—insisting that it be shot in Vienna; insisting that Welles play Harry Lime over distributor David Selznick’s forceful nomination of Noel Coward; resisting Selznick’s usual indefatigable memos and attempted “Americanization” of the script; discovering Anton Karas and his zither in a tiny beer and sausage restaurant (“The Harry Lime Theme” became a major hit record of its day); and finally, rejecting even Graham Greene’s suggestion of a climatic rapprochement between Anna and Holly. (Ironically, there is a famous moment in Welles’ performance which is Reed’s too: Harry Lime’s hands, reaching desperately through the sewer grating, fingers flailing in the windy night air, actually belong to a stand-in—the director.)

Yet, perhaps Carol Reed took too seriously the suggestion that Welles’ hand lay somewhere in The Third Man. He never again caught the peculiar and vibrant visual stylization, the special “look” which makes this film and his earlier Odd Man Out such a stunning experience. (William Wyler, after watching the film, presented Reed with a spirit level, to place on his camera next time, forcibly preventing any angle shots.) This was the one time Reed, as a director, reached perfection; and he did it as much by assembling and marshalling a brilliantly talented company as by the power of his own vision. Together he and Greene—and Welles, Cotten, Howard, Valli, Karas, Krasker, Korda and all the others—created a portrait of postwar corruption and the death of idealism that has lodged ever since in our collective consciousness. Together, they made a rich, moody masterpiece of guilt, love, and ambivalent redemption.

Michael Wilmington

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Jean-Luc Godard – “The Face of the French Cinema Has Changed” (1959)

August 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm (Cinema, French New Wave, Reviews & Articles)

French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard started out in the 1950s writing articles on cinema.  Godard wrote this New Wave battle cry for the April 22, 1959, issue of the French journal Arts, on the news of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows being selected to represent France at the Cannes Film Festival (thanks to the machinations of French culture minister and New Wave champion André Malraux). The year before, Truffaut had been barred from Cannes as a critic because of his Cahiers du cinéma attacks on the festival…


As soon as the screening was over, the lights came up in the tiny auditorium. There was silence for a few moments. Then Philippe Erlanger, representing the Quai d’Orsay, leaned over to André Malraux. “Is this film really to represent France at the Cannes festival?” “Certainly, certainly.” And so the minister for cultural affairs ratified the selection committee’s decision to send to Cannes, as France’s sole official entry, François Truffaut’s first full-length feature, The 400 Blows.

What matters is that for the first time a young film has been officially designated by the powers that be to reveal the true face of the French cinema to the entire world. And what one can say of Truffaut could equally well be said of Alain Resnais, of Claude Chabrol if Les cousins had been chosen to represent France at Cannes, of Georges Franju and Head Against the Wall, of Jean-Pierre Melville and Two Men in Manhattan, of Jean Rouch and Moi, un noir. And the same words apply to other Jeans, their brothers and their masters: Renoir and his Testament du Docteur Cordelier, and Cocteau, of course, had Raoul Lévy at last made up his mind to produce Testament of Orpheus.

The face of the French cinema has changed.

Malraux made no mistake. The author of La monnaie de l’absolu could hardly help recognizing that tiny inner flame, that reflection of intransigence, shining in the eyes of Truffaut’s Antoine as he sports a man’s hat to steal a typewriter in a sleeping Paris; for it is the same as that which glittered twenty years ago on Tchen’s dagger on the first page of La condition humaine.

The director of L’espoir was better placed than anybody to know what this reflection meant: the principal form of talent in the cinema today is to accord more importance to what is in front of the camera than to the camera itself, to answer first of all the question why, in order to then be able to answer the question how. Content, in other words, precedes form and conditions it. If the former is false, the latter will logically be false too: it will be awkward.

In attacking over the last five years in these columns the false technique of Gilles Grangier, Ralph Habib, Yves Allégret, Claude Autant-Lara, Pierre Chenal, Jean Stelli, Jean Delannoy, André Hunebelle, Julien Duvivier, Maurice Labro, Yves Ciampi, Marcel Carné, Michel Boisrond, Raoul André, Louis Daquin, André Berthomieu, Henri Decoin, Jean Laviron, Yves Robert, Edmond Gréville, Robert Darène . . . what we were getting at was simply this: your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is.

And we have more right than anyone to say this. Because if your name is emblazoned like a star’s outside the cinemas on the Champs-Élysées, if people now talk about a Henri Verneuil film or a Christian-Jaque just as they talk about a Griffith, Vigo, or Preminger, it is thanks to us.

To those of us who on this paper, in Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, or Cinéma 59, no matter where, on the back page of Figaro littéraire or France-observateur, in the prose of Lettres françaises and sometimes even the schoolgirl stuff of L’express, those of us who waged, in homage to Louis Delluc, Roger Leenhardt, and André Bazin, the battle for the film auteur.

We won the day in having it acknowledged in principle that a film by Hitchcock, for example, is as important as a book by Aragon. Film auteurs, thanks to us, have finally entered the history of art. But you whom we attack have automatically benefited from this success. And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema.

We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are. Today, victory is ours. It is our films that will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that. Fifteen new, courageous, sincere, lucid, beautiful films will once again bar the way to conventional productions. For although we have won a battle, the war is not yet over.

Jean-Luc Godard

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