Before The Third Man

The last ever post on Films on the Box is this entry to the Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon, hosted by the excellent Maddie at Classic Film and TV Corner. The topic is an outline of how the writer became a fan of “old” movies, and my entry will be a loose attempt to describe how I was hopelessly in love with them even before the Ground Zero of catching The Third Man for the first time.

The “legend” goes that prior to The Third Man, I wasn’t especially interested, but having seen it I was hooked, catapulted body and soul into hitherto unseen waters of golden age cinema, which I had previously denied myself the pleasure of enjoying. It’s for certain that watching it was a watershed moment for me. At the time I was in sixth form. It was the late 1980s, the last gasps of Thatcher’s Britain, when the instigation of the poll tax was beginning to form a death knell for Maggie’s time in office. I was looking at Universities, planning a departure from the grim northern town within which I’d grown up. What was unknown to me was that I would never really go back once I had left, though the writing was on the wall. Not only was “home” a staid world of the dying steel industry, mass unemployment and bad air pollution, practically abandoned by the government as the country it managed shifted towards a service industry economy, it was one in which I was a complete misfit, culturally at odds, basically wanting more from life. There’s a famous photoshoot depicting Mrs Thatcher on a visit to Redcar, walking among the grim, silent edifices that once hosted thousands of employees. Most of the pictures show her walking away, the message, made clearly enough that this was a dead place. And so it was for me.

But before I took my leave, there was a screening of The Third Man on TV. Readers of a certain age will recall this as the era of the four main channels, when the vast majority of televised entertainment was restricted to what BBC1 and 2, ITV and Channel 4 deigned to schedule. Satellite TV was in its infancy and very few people had it. Cinema was on its arse, and the main assassin – the video market – was still mainly restricted to new rentals, endless rows of VHS cassette cases, with lurid covers designed to attract casual browsers. It seems incredible to the modern age, when you can pretty much watch something, anything, as soon as the desire to do so pops into your head, but that’s how it was. The Third Man was scheduled one day. I watched it, and fell in love.

What hooked me to the movie needs little explanation here. If you’ve seen it then you probably know for yourself, and if you do want to read my thoughts, there’s a fairly lengthy piece about it on these pages. I can say that the hit was instantaneous. I’m sure that’s the case for many viewers. Hell, I spotted it available on BBC iPlayer last night and, on leave from work and with no time pressures, soaked it up all over again. It remains one of my most watched movies. Without saying anything else about it, while refusing to go into the Dutch angles, the crisp black and white photography of post-war Vienna, ‘bombed about a bit’, or Joseph Cotten’s doomed, puppy dog obsession with heartbroken Valli, there’s the musical score, the unique zither playing that has been lodged in my head since that first viewing. It’s beautiful – see what you think…

In any event, I like to think of this as the moment, so powerful and potent to a still impressionable mind, when I transformed into a dedicated fan of the classics. Beforehand, I was like any other punter, and afterwards hits from the old school were all I craved. I think there’s an extent to which that is true. It did provoke a desire in me to seek out the back catalogue of Orson Wells, and Joseph Cotten, and Valli, and absolutely the other films directed by Carol Reed. The latter varies in quality, though his work is never boring, and in certain titles – Odd Man Out springs instantly to mind – he comes close to matching The Third Man’s heights.

The thing is that it isn’t really true. In reality, I had always been a sucker for a good movie, and I was entirely open to those from the golden age. The gateway was probably horror. I was part of the generation that was exposed to the late night double bill, a pair of classics the BBC regularly scheduled on Saturday nights. Far too young to stay up and see them, I relied on my parents to record them on video and then I would get up and see what Movie Santa had left. It started with a run of Universal classics. Dracula followed by Frankenstein. Dracula’s Daughter then The Bride of Frankenstein. The Invisible Man and The Werewolf. Terrific films all, not very long and sort of shocking, even if their power to terrify had been superseded even then. That said, my gran advised that she once snuck into a screening of Frankenstein at the cinema, aged around nine, and emerged with her nerves in pieces, scattered about the theatre floor as she watched Boris Karloff lumbering around, weighed down with welters of Jack Pierce make-up and prosthetics, looking every inch the created man, confused and as childishly frightened as anyone following his adventures…

These were followed by Hammer’s offerings. Again, these were long in the tooth by the time I saw them, but I experienced those first pangs of genuine cinematic fear. The Brides of Dracula was a genuine shocker. Here, the vampires were tactile and charming, capable of seducing their way towards a victim’s neck before revealing the monster beneath. I’ll confess I was petrified – there seemed to be no escape, unless a kindly Peter Cushing happened to be passing, and then in the next movie there he was again, but this time he was more diabolical than the monsters he created as Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein…

I soaked up whatever the TV schedules happened to throw out. Despite the limitations of the media, there was a willingness to screen classic after classic, even offerings from the silent era, as 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera worked its way into my imagination. The fear factor was never entirely in Lon Chaney’s make-up, rather the labyrinth of tunnels below Paris’s Opera House, dark and deadly, and who knew from which recess the phantom would strike? Then there was the very real treat of King Kong. This one packs so much in that it seems impossible to believe the whole thing takes place over one hundred breathless minutes. Peter Jackson stretched the premise’s credibility when he extended his 2005 remake to an epic running time, but the 1933 original remains the real deal, those Willis O’Brien effects breathing life into Kong, transforming a model into a sympathetic character.

From O’Brien, my thoughts run logically to Ray Harryhausen, whose work in effects did as much as anyone to spark a young viewer’s imagination. What’s your favourite? I turn as ever to Jason and the Argonauts, in which the story is a mere clothes line to string together the marvellous creations over which Harryhausen toiled. Whether your monster of choice is the set of harpies plaguing poor Patrick Troughton, the skeleton warriors that battle Jason and his buddies, or the titanic Talos, my personal pick (possibly of any screen creature), this is a picture that’s designed to thrill and delight. It’s only years later, viewed through jaded eyes that have witnessed the age of CGI bringing just about anything to life on the screen, that I really come to appreciate the magic of Harryhausen, the personalities that he infused into his monstrous menagerie. These were beings with a sense of purpose, with motivation, which makes them real in a way that’s impossible to do without a similar level of soul and dedication. As a point of comparison, I like to place Harryhausen’s Medusa from Clash of the Titans against that of the 2010 update. The latter, a computer generated sprite, glides along perfectly and arguably poses more of a threat, but it carries none of the sweaty tension from 1981’s original.

Not that this is an anti-CGI rant. Something like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies shows how well this can work when real care is invested in it, however I didn’t grow up with these kinds of effects and I don’t think my world was made worse for their absence. Would The Wizard of Oz be any better with a modern touch? I remember seeing it as a child, when it was screened over Christmas, and hopelessly falling under its spell. Many years later, it worked its charm similarly over my son. Have modern epics done anything better than the classics, fluidly recreating the earlier entries’ spectacle with green screens and computer effects rather than hiring thousands of extras and constructing enormous sets, at great cost? Personally, I think there’s a great deal to be admired about that army on the screen being played by actual people dressed in period costumes that have been designed and fitted to help give the illusion of authenticity, but this is an old argument that I’ve made many times and it helps to explain why I still love the classics.

I could go on – there’s a whole section I had planned about my efforts to catch all the Oscar winners, and how I eventually got turned on to the Western, but this is already several days’ late and I have failed to submit it in time to catch the back end of 2022. For me, there’s a lot still to watch, which includes keeping up with the Powerhouse Indicator series of Noir boxsets from the Columbia and Universal Studios’ libraries. These are a mixed bag, however I sometimes come across the occasional gem like 1954’s Drive a Crooked Road, starring Mickey Rooney as a down on his luck car mechanic who gets tricked into taking part in a heist. I don’t normally associate Rooney with the Noir style, yet his underplayed acting is perfect for the film, the emotional wounds he suffers when things go wrong are beautifully performed, and now I want more.

Once again, this is my entry for the Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon – click on the image above for a link to other peoples’ stories about how they fell for films from a bygone age. It’s also the last post on these here pages. It’s quite some time since Films on the Box was actually about movies being shown on the small screen, and I would quite like to engage with some writing projects that need a new site to showcase them. More on this when I finally get my backside in gear on that front… In the meantime, I wish only the best for you all in 2023 and beyond, and thank you so much for the support you have shown for me over the years.


4 Replies to “Before The Third Man”

  1. Happy New Year, Mike. What a wonderful read! I’m only sorry you stopped when you did! I for one could have carried on reading much more of your story. The Third Man is a gem and it’s easy to understand falling under its spell. Those Columbia Noir boxsets are a treasure trove and one of my favourite releases in recent years.

    Thank you so much for taking part. Sorry to hear this is the last post(honoured you returned for this though)and I hope you do set up another site. Maddy

    1. Thanks Maddy. Setting up something new is a priority – I want to do a page that combines reading projects with certain movie threads e.g. following a single actor through their career, that kind of thing. It’s felt for some time by me that FOTB had pretty much run its course beyond what it was set up to be, and as you can see I’d barely bothered with it for a long time.

      Still, it was fun to do this piece, and it seemed very appropriate as a last post. Happy New Year to you, and best of luck with the Classic corner you have made your own!

  2. That’s a lovely post, Mike, with so much of it that I can relate to myself. It’s with a certain sadness too that I read it’s to be your last entry on this blog. I know you had only posted sporadically here in recent years but I always enjoyed reading your thoughts whenever you did. I will miss it.
    I do hope you decide to write some more under a different banner, and I look forward to that prospect. Happy New Year, Mike.

    1. Thanks very much Colin, and Happy New Year to you! Where this site is concerned, I felt that I hadn’t posted anything that fit its original remit for some time – there are other areas of film that I’d love to cover – and as you know, I hadn’t been finding the time to do it justice… Hopefully, upwards and onwards. In the meantime, thanks as always for the support – FOTB was started more than ten years ago, which means Riding the High Country must have been going on for longer still, a far cry from the old Film Journal days! All the best for 2023, Colin.

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