' Cinema Romantico: ".....there was a third man....."

Friday, February 03, 2006

".....there was a third man....."

Last year about this time I wrote an essay that I sent out to family and friends explaining that I’d never had a chance to see one of the Greatest Movies Ever Made on the big screen. That, of course, changed last year in late January. But now – thanks to the great city of Chicago - it will change again. Late this evening I will be able to state that I have seen two of the Greatest Movies Ever Made on the big screen.

“The Third Man” was made in 1949 and set in a Vienna post World War II. Reportedly, the studio did not want it placed in such a bleak setting (mountains and mountains of rubble are viewed everywhere). As Roger Ebert stated in his book The Great Movies, if the studio had been granted its wish the movie would have been “forgotten in a week”. But the director Carol Reed did not budge and “The Third Man” is now cited as an absolute classic. In fact, a recent poll called it the greatest British film ever made.

It concerns the story of a hard drinking writer (!) named Holly Martins who comes to Vienna at the request of his old friend – a man named Harry Lime. But when he arrives he finds that Lime is dead and being buried. But as this is a movie the death cannot be all that it seems. And it isn’t. Martins speaks with Calloway, the investigator on the trail of who killed Lime. Calloway urges Martins to return home but Martins relents and begins his own investigation.

This leads Martins down many avenues but the most important one is to Anna, the girlfriend of Harry Lime. Martins falls in love with her, to some degree, but the feeling is not returned. Anna is clearly still infatuated with and in awe of the deceased Lime. As the story progresses, things are revealed about Lime and he is clearly not the man Martins thought he was. Anna knows these things, too, but her view of him is not diminished. And it becomes clear Lime may not be dead after all.

(Is he or isn’t he? Well, since the cover of the DVD shows Harry Lime I think that answer may be obvious.)

Harry Lime is one of the most ingenious creations of the cinema. Everyone in the entire film for the entire first hour talks about nothing but Harry Lime which almost makes him mythic before he even shows up onscreen. Of course, once he does show up he has to live up to that stature. And he does – through the writing of Graham Greene and the acting of Orson Welles. (Though it must be noted The Speech – to hear it once is to never forget it - was, according to Greene, written by Welles.) He has to show the charm he must have had to envelope Martins and attract Anna. But at the same time he must reveal shades of the sinister side he must also have had to become such a wanted man.

We’re introduced to Welles through perhaps the most famous entrance in movie history. I can act it out in my head yet I never tire of it. Martins is on a darkened street and senses someone in a doorway across from him. He yells out to the mystery person. A cat darts into the doorway and we see a pair of black shoes. A light turns on. The person is revealed as none other than Harry Lime - complete with a smile only Orson Welles could have managed to make friendly, evil and cool simultaneously. (And all this is accompanied by the movie's zither score which will remain stuck in your head in a good way for days after you see it.)

That entrance is the inciting incident for a final act that is among the most gripping ever filmed. You watch films nowadays and you realize how many of them contain no interest in building to anything. “The Third Man” isn’t like that. It slowly escalates the tension. By the time we get to Lime’s flight through the Vienna sewer system you're conscious of how it isn’t merely an arbitrary action sequence tacked on to give the film a “big” ending. It’s designed to fit in its place. The drama doesn’t come from us discovering Lime’s fate - it comes from Lime slowly becoming aware of his fate.

The final shot is justifiably famous. It is an extended take on a dark road as Anna walks toward Martins who lights a cigarette, waiting for her to reach him. Will she stop and talk to him or will she continue past? Forget the answer for a moment and let’s just focus on the fact that as you watch this you’re not sure what you want her to do. After all that’s happened, you could make an argument that you want her to stop but also that you want her to continue on and keep going. And that’s when you realize you can’t take a side. You can’t because the movie doesn’t. That’s what makes it great. No, no, no, no, that’s what makes it a classic.

(Note: As far as I'm concerned, the Gene Siskel Center stands with Wrigley Field and the Sears Tower and the Field Museum as an unforgettable Chicago landmark. It has allowed me to see Ingrid Bergman on the big screen and now it's allowing me to see Harry Lime on the big screen. Now If I could just convince them to do a revival showing of "Chinatown".)

No comments: