The Third Man

  • The Third Man
  • Director:  Carol Reed
  • Date:  1949
  • Studio:  London Films Productions (UK)
  • Genre:  Film Noir, Mystery, Drama
  • Cast:  Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White
  • Format:  Black/White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  NTSC, R1 (Criterion Collection)

“Is that what you say to people after death? ‘That’s awkward.’ ” – Holly

“Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins.  Leave death to the professionals.” – Major Calloway

“Look down there, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000  [English Pounds Sterling] for every dot that you stopped – would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?” – Harry Lime

Holly Martins (Cotten) is a down on his luck American writer who jumps at the chance when his old childhood friend, Harry Lime, offers him a job in post-World War II Vienna. He arrives in a city that’s still literally digging out from the destruction and rubble of war, and a city that’s split into British, American, Russian, and French zones (so having your passport handy is of vital importance), only to find that his friend, Harry Lime, is dead. The police believe it to be an accident. Holly has trouble believing his old friend is dead. He starts to investigate – at first, merely to learn what happened. He talks to various people, the porter at Harry’s building who witnessed a few things about the time of the accident, Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, other friends of Harry’s, and becomes suspicious that not only was Harry’s death not an accident – but that something odd is going on in Vienna.

Harry also has several encounters with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British police for the British section, and his aide, Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee). When he takes his suspicions to the police, he’s told, not unkindly, that even if Lime was murdered, the police won’t waste resources investigating – because the man was a racketeer, involved in the Black Market, and most importantly he was involved in a scheme to steal, cut, and re-sell penicillin to sick and injured men, women and children – that resulted in several deaths, and a number of children with meningitis. As first, Holly doesn’t believe his old friend would be involved in such a scheme. Later in the film, Major Calloway shows him proof of Harry Lime’s involvement, and Holly reluctantly believes it. Still later on – Calloway takes Holly to a hospital ward filled with children who were left mentally disabled because of the tainted medicine and the resulting meningitis. There is considerable restraint in the scene, the audience doesn’t see the sick children – only doctors and nurses tending to them, some shadows and medical charts, and the reactions of Holly, Major Calloway, and Sgt. Paine.

Holly also spends time with Anna, Harry’s girlfriend. He begins to develop feelings for her – and she seems to return those feelings, but it’s not to be.

About halfway through the film, when Holly’s considering leaving Vienna altogether, he actually meets Harry Lime, who isn’t as dead as everyone thought.

The second half of the film turns into more of a moral dilemma for Holly. Harry wants him to join him in another scheme to make money, that would probably harm as many people as his last one if not more. Holly tries to get Anna to go with him – but she’s still in love with Harry. Anna’s been having her own problems – she’s living with a false passport, perhaps even a false name – because, as a Czechoslovakian she would be sent to Russia. Anna’s reactions throughout the film are influenced by her blaming Holly somewhat for getting her in trouble with the police and her undying and unexplained love for Harry Lime.

Meanwhile, Major Calloway holds his duty to turn Anna over to the Russians, because she’s an illegal immigrant, and the carrot of arranging her freedom over Holly as well.

Holly agrees to set-up Harry after Major Calloway presents him with proof of Lime’s involvement in the drug stealing and selling scheme. They also discover that the person buried in Harry’s grave is the missing hospital porter Calloway’s been looking for.

However, an encounter with Anna again shakes Holly’s resolve, he meets with Harry Lime, who turns out to be a real sociopath. Harry does not take up Lime on his implied offer to go into illegal business together someplace outside of Vienna.

Holly goes back to Calloway – who this time shows him the children in the hospital. Holly resolves to set-up Lime to help the police, especially as Calloway lets him have Anna’s passport back.

Anna – gets off the train (Calloway had also supplied a ticket out of Vienna), she sees Holly and blows up at him because she knows he’s setting up Harry. She even rips up her forged passport.

The conclusion of the film is a chase in Vienna’s sewers, as Holly, then the Major and his troops, then police from the other districts of Vienna all chase down Harry Lime.

The brilliance of this film isn’t in the overall plot, though the dead man who isn’t dead was probably somewhat novel at the time – the brilliance is in the details. The cinematography of this film is just incredible. Director Carol Reed uses all sorts of unusual, tilted, and strange camera angles, which alongside the strange score, act to put the audience at unease. This odd setting emphasizes for example, Holly’s isolation and grasping need to trust somebody. It sets all the characters apart, especially Harry Lime who towers over the film, despite not really being in it all that much. Lime is the “Third Man” of the title – referring to a Third Man who witnessed Harry’s death as described by a witness, whom everyone else involved denies was even there. The discovery of a “Third Man” is an early clue that Holly discovers and uses to try to find out who “killed” Harry Lime.

The setting of this film is also unusual. Vienna is literally pulling itself out of rubble. Piles of concrete, and stone dust, and bombed out buildings are in nearly every shot. Nothing looks new and almost nothing is whole. There is evidence of war in nearly every scene. Oddly enough, the sewers are the only structures that seem solid, not crumbling or broken – and they are far underground. But it isn’t just the buildings that are destroyed – the faces of the people, all very old or very young (except the main leads who are all probably in their 30s) – are a visual hint that the able-bodied men are all gone – and good young women don’t appear on the streets. Anna, who works in a theater singing comedy opera in German, isn’t exactly what the times would have called a “good woman”. The faces of the bit players, and the few people in the streets, have character – but they have also seen pain and destruction.

Overall, I would highly recommend watching The Third Man at least once. Visually it’s a film not to be missed, despite the bleak setting. I’d say it really needs to be seen because of the bleak setting.

Recommendation:  See it
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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Sunset Blvd. – Photosets -B/W

the-dark-city:

“Sunset Blvd.” (1950) dir. by Billy Wilder

One of my favorite films ever – Sunset Blvd.

Gaslight (1944)

  • Title:  Gaslight
  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC, (Double-sided)

“I was right about you — I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to me.” — Gregory
“I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to her.” — Mr. Brian Cameron, Scotland Yard

I’ve always thought that Gaslight is one of the scariest movies to watch. It’s spine-tingling and chilling, rather than gross, or shocking. The best way to get the full effect, is to watch it with all the lights off, at night, when you’re alone in the house, and of course a thunderstorm helps. There is nothing scarier than the idea of someone coldly trying to drive you insane. Films about those kinds of mind games are truly frightening.

The movie opens with Paula leaving her aunt’s house, she thinks for the last time. She had been raised by her aunt, after her mother died in childbirth. She’s been encouraged to go to Italy to study singing and forget the recent tragedy that’s befallen her. We learn later that her aunt was a famous opera singer and she was murdered. Still later we learn the murder is still unsolved, there was a jewel theft at the same time, but the jewels were never found, sold, or traded.

In Italy, Paula quickly discovers she has no talent for operatic singing, and she meets the man of her dreams, she thinks. After two weeks, he’s proposed. She tells him she needs time to think about it, and wants a week to herself at a lakeside vacation resort. When her train arrives there, he’s waiting for her. He talks her into settling down in London, and even though Paula doesn’t want to return to London, she agrees. The film is, by the way, set in Victorian London. They end up living in Paula’s Aunt’s house, which Paula has inherited.

The film then gets weird – Gregory Anton completely controls his wife’s life. He doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, not even on a short walk (even by Victorian standards, that’s excessive). He fires Paula’s maid, and hires an impertinent girl named Nancy (beautifully played by Angela Lansbury as alternately sinister and flirty). Again, normally the hiring and firing of servants would be a woman’s job.  And he slowly starts to drive Paula insane, giving her things, then taking them away but telling her she lost them. Taking a picture down off the wall, then pointing it out to be missing and saying she did it.  And going out at night, leaving her alone with a deaf cook and rude maid, who do everything he says and thus join in on his mind games of turning down the gaslight (and saying it hasn’t been) and ignoring the footsteps in the closed off attic that Paula hears.

But the genius of  the movie is that it isn’t obvious about any of this. We don’t actually see Gregory take a brooch from Paula’s purse, we only see him fiddle with it. We don’t see him tell the servants to lie to make Paula look nuts either – we only see him tell Nancy she’s to take all her orders from him and not her mistress.

Joseph Cotten is Mr. (Brian) Cameron, a Scotland Yard detective who happens to see Paula with Gregory one day when they are sight-seeing at the Tower of London. Gregory is immensely jealous when Paula smiles at Cameron after he tips his hat to her, but she was merely being polite. Gregory then goes back to the Yard and examines the cold case of Paula’s aunt’s murder, but is told to leave it alone.  Luckily for Paula, he doesn’t.

Paula, Gregory and Mr. Cameron again run into each other at a party thrown by one of Paula’s aunt’s friends. Again, Gregory pulls his slight of hand, telling Paula his watch is gone and pulling it out of her purse – the hysterical Paula is led from the party.

Gregory’s cold, calculating, insidious little plans get worse and worse, as he tells Paula a letter she found in her aunt’s music doesn’t exist and she was staring at nothing, and that her mother didn’t die in childbirth but rather a year later in an insane asylum.

Fortunately, by this time Cameron and a bobby named Williams have started investigating, and find out  Gregory only goes out to “work” at night, they even find that he disappears in an alley behind the house, and comes out looking dirty and dusty, his tie askew. One night, when Gregory has left, Cameron goes to the house and finds Paula, he starts talking to her when the gaslight dims. She’s excited that he also sees the gas lower. Then he hears the footsteps, and, knowing what he does from his own investigation, concludes her husband is poking around in the attic. They also find the letter that Gregory had claimed didn’t exist.

Then the light turns to normal, Paula encourages Cameron to leave, he does, and when Gregory returns he, and Elizabeth try to convince Paula no one was there that evening. Paula starts to break down and Gregory arrives. After a struggle, Cameron arrests Gregory finding the jewels on him.  Paula’s aunt had sewn them on her costume amongst all the paste jewels. Nothing like hiding in plain sight!

But this isn’t a case of the boy rescues the girl. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is masterful – she portrays a deliriously happy bride, and a frightened wife equally well. But her best scene is at the end of the movie, as she turns the tables on her husband, playing the same mind games on him that he had played on her, if only for a short while, before turning him over to Cameron and the police.

The directing, the use of light and shadow, and the acting, especially by the women in the piece is all masterful.  It’s also a flip-flop of the typical Film Noir motif — that usually involves a cunning, conniving, designing woman, known as the femme fatale, dragging a relatively innocent man down into a well of crime and evil, and thus destroying him. In Gaslight, it’s the man who’s cunning, conniving, cold, and chilling, and he’s attempting to drive his wife insane, after murdering her aunt, to get the jewels he didn’t have time to steal because she had interrupted him. (The police knew Paula had awoken, walked down the stairs, and found her aunt dead, but everything else on the case remained open.) Also, where the man often dies as a result of committing a crime for the femme fatale – here Paula not only survives, but in the end, she’s triumphant, discovering she’s not going insane, getting the chance to pay her husband back (who’s secretly married to someone else, and thus not legally her husband), and possibly even finding happiness with the detective who solved the case. How often can a Film Noir film have a truly happy ending? Not often.

Anyway, it’s an incredibly good film, everyone in it does an excellent and admirable job, and I love it. It can be good to watch something spooky occasionally.

Recommendation:  See It!
Rating:  5 Stars
Next film:  Gaslight (1940)

Citizen Kane

  • Title:  Citizen Kane
  • Director:  Orson Welles
  • Date:  1941
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Classic, Drama
  • Cast:  Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten
  • Format:  Standard, black and white
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC  (2-disc Special Edition)

“One item on your list intrigues me, the New York Inquirer, a little newspaper I understand we acquired in a foreclosure proceeding, please don’t sell it, I’m coming back to America to take charge, I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”  — Charles Foster Kane 

“The trouble is you don’t realize you’re talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane who owns 82,364 shares of Public Transit Preferred, you see I do have a general idea of my holdings, I sympathize with you, Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his papers should be run out of town, a committee should be formed to boycott him, you may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contibution of  $1000. … On the other hand, I am the publisher of  the Inquirer, as such it is my duty, and I’ll let you in on a little secret, it’s also my pleasure to see to it that decent, hardworking people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests!” — Charles Foster Kane

Citizen Kane is thought by many film critics and historians to be the best film ever made. Personally, I think that honor should go to Casablanca… but anyway. Citizen Kane is an odd film – the direction is incredible, and the shots, angles, tricks with shots, use of lighting, shadows, mirrors, are incredible. In fact, I’d say if you’re one of the people who doesn’t like Citizen Kane, I’d suggest try watching it with the sound off, just to notice the picture more.

However, it is true that there aren’t really any sympathetic characters in this movie. Kane, who is vaguely sympathetic when he starts out as the crusading newspaper publisher, also starts a war for his own aggrandizement and to sell papers (Kane even paraphrases the famous William Randolph Hearst quote, “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.” More about Hearst later.) His personal life is in shambles, but not in a way that the audience can sympathize with – we know both of his wives left him, and his first wife died in a car accident along with his son. We know he was more or less sold off by his parents and raised by a banker and boarding schools, though with a silver spoon in his mouth, so to speak, without real love.

We’re not really sympathetic to the reporter who’s trying to discover the meaning of Kane’s last word either. Though the non-linear story-telling was probably revolutionary at the time (1941), now audiences are much more accustomed to even more complicated methods of explaining the plot. So the reporter’s running around interviewing old friends, acquaintances and ex-lovers of Kane’s seems more like a device for structure. I don’t even remember the reporter’s name – if he has one. And “Rosebud” is a verbal McGuffin, that is, “the thing everyone in the film is looking for – that may or may not be found.” In this case, only the audience learns that “Rosebud” is his sled.

Which brings me to the point of what the movie is about. As Kane’s life crumbles, his first marriage growing colder and colder, until she finally leaves, taking his son, and subsequently dying – he begins to acquire more and more – not only building his newspaper and radio empire, but buying statues, art, even parts of castles. In my opinion, this buying spree represents two things – the habit of the nouveau riche of buying expensive things to impress others, whether or not they like looking at them or even know anything about the art they are buying. And second, Kane’s obsession with a need to possess.  Whether it’s for a sense of security, or only a way of lording it over those who don’t have what he has, or even simply an attempt to be accepted in the highest circles of the wealthy is completely unknown and unanswered in the film.

Kane’s second wife is no better – she quickly becomes rude, screeching, mean-spirited, and even cruel, though in truth Kane responds in kind. Susan never seems to appreciate what Kane does for her (he did after all, build her an Opera house and a palace) but he’s also doing things that he thinks will impress her or make her happy, rather than what she wants. In the end, though it appears Kane married both women for love – in the end, neither loved him.

So Kane ends up, all alone, in his stately pleasure dome of Xanadu, probably pretty miserable, surrounded by his art treasures which are for the most part, still in their packing crates. It’s the ultimate story of stuff and things not being as important as love, living life, and caring about friends and family.

And Rosebud? I think besides being his sled, it represents the last time Charles Foster Kane was truly happy.

Course besides the incredible, incredible direction, the perfect use of shadow and light, contrast, basically just really, really good black and white photography, and the incredible shots and images (the breaking of the glass snowball, Kane towering over Susan, the increasing table size and growing physical distance representing the increasing coldness in Kane and Emily’s marriage, the row of Kanes as he passed the mirrored archway in his palace, etc., etc.) and then there’s also the famous “controversy” about Citizen Kane.

William Randolph Hearst hated the movie. He saw it as a direct insult to him, his wife, and his girlfriend, and set out to destroy the film and almost succeeded. Being a newspaper tycoon – he ordered bad reviews in all his papers (still a strategy that works today – you want something to fail, spread bad press about it), not only that – his movie theaters would not run the film. The 2-disc special edition includes a documentary about the feud between Hearst and Welles, which I watched when I bought the DVD set several years ago. I didn’t re-watch it this time, but in many ways it’s more interesting than the actual film. Especially if you’re interested in the history of censorship. So if the 2-disc special edition featuring the documentary is still available that’s the version one should buy.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next film:  The Commitments