The Third Man (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 22 December (11.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Scheduled to mark one hundred years since Orson Welles bounded onto Planet Earth (though he was in fact a May child), it’s always refreshing to catch up with The Third Man again. This has to be a strong contender for my favourite film of all time, an exquisite treat to get to see it in its restored form in the cinema this year and a title I revisit regularly. Despite the fact Welles is in it so little, the artwork and enduring images from the film feature him prominently, and in many ways it was a perfect role for him – enigmatic, complicated, and allowing him lots of time off from the shoot. I think it’s just wonderful, from the astonishing black and white photography in post-war Vienna, to the unique Anton Karas score and its dense plotting that never feels forced, indeed it’s a miracle of economical film making from the peerless Carol Reed. I blame this one for getting me hooked into classic cinema in the first place – yes, in my eyes it’s that good.

A few months ago, I wrote a retrospective on The Third Man for Multitude of Movies, and the editors have been kind enough to allow me to use the article again here. If you’ve never read the magazine or visited their excellent website, you are encouraged to stop what you’re doing and head over there right away. In the meantime, here’s 2,000 words on why the film is essential…

The Third Man is one of the best films of all time. Its genius lies in the fact that not only does it hit all the right notes artistically but it’s also very entertaining. There are no bum notes, and the 104 minutes it occupies fly by. In researching this, I’ve read various books and articles, and re-watched The Third Man several times, including a visit to Home in Manchester to see the glorious 4K restoration on the big screen. It still dazzles, just as much as it did when I first came across it, aged 16, ready to have my mind opened to classic cinema and unwittingly catching one of its highlights. Writing these words, the melancholic stylings of Anton Karas’s lonely zither are playing in my head, and on Spotify. I can’t ever imagine being bored of The Third Man.

Karas seems as good a place as any to start. The film’s score is one of the elements that makes it unique. At a time when releases were soundtracked by an orchestra as a matter of course, the decision to use a single zither for The Third Man was an inspired gamble that paid off. Its director, Carol Reed, chanced upon Karas when he’d been employed to supply background music for a welcome party to the production crew in Vienna. Reed was haunted by the sound and tracked down the little musician, recording hours of material. Determined to find space for it in the film, Reed used his zither footage initially to accompany the rough edits of the film, realisation dawning that it was the perfect musical background. A reluctant and homesick Karas was persuaded to travel to England and record what would become the full score. The idiosyncratic music became a massive hit, Karas’s title track ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ turning into a bestseller among record buyers. It prompted the Austrian to embark on tours of Britain and America, and earned him enough of a windfall to pay for his Vienna bar, appropriately named Der Dritte Mann, the showpiece being Karas playing the Harry Lime Theme to awestruck patrons.

The Third Man is ostensibly a thriller, based on real-life black market racketeering in impoverished, post-war Vienna. It was written by Graham Greene, who had produced the screenplay for Reed’s previous film, The Fallen Idol, and was dispatched to Vienna by the head of London Films, Alexander Korda, to come up with a new story. Greene had already come up with the hook, that of a dead man inexplicably seen alive and well, and now applied it to a tale set in the Austrian capital. Wandering the streets with Korda’s assistant, Elizabeth Montagu, Greene was struck by the state of Vienna, ‘bombed about a bit’, jagged ruins of buildings, also the way it was managed by representatives of the four victorious powers from World War Two. Amidst the ensuing confusion, there was little wonder that criminal activity thrived, desperate people scratching out a survival by any means possible, and a meeting with The Times correspondent, Peter Smollett, introduced Greene to the victims of illegal antibiotic usage, a hospital filled with children who were dying from taking it.

The story came together, telling of an amoral character who took advantage of the poverty and city under divided rule to smuggle diluted medicine to the people. In The Third Man, military officials from Britain, France, the USA and USSR do their best to maintain control, despite the lack of mutual understanding. Vienna lies shattered, grand examples of its former glamour now faded, other buildings bombed into rubble, whilst the people remain passive onlookers, pinched and prematurely aged faces looking on as the action takes place around them. It’s the perfect environment for Harry Lime to operate in, living in the Russian sector to evade his British pursuers and using the extensive sewer system beneath Vienna to move around. When he ‘dies’, knocked over by a car, it seems the case against him is closed and he can continue his trade from the shadows, an elusive ghost who can never be caught because he no longer officially exists. But he makes one mistake, when he invites his childhood friend, Holly Martins, to travel over and work with him.

In the film, Martins is played by Joseph Cotten, a major American star who was loaned to the production by the Selznick Releasing Organisation. The Third Man was made by a collaboration of Korda and David O Selznick, who worked together to distribute it to audiences in Britain and America. The latter supplied investment, talent, and also the lengthy interference of Selznick himself. A notorious dabbler in films in which he was involved, Selznick had already earned for himself the bitter enmity of Alfred Hitchcock. The British director had been contracted to him during the forties and grew increasingly sickened by the endless string of memos issued that attempted to overrule and control him. Selznick tried the same strategy with Korda, a worthy rival who was every bit as domineering. The to and fro between the pair would go on to dog the entire production. It was Korda, a Hungarian émigré now established as a key figure in the British film industry, who came up with the idea of a film set in Vienna, seeing the creative potential of a yarn set in the defeated city that was split into four zones. Yet Selznick was equally involved, for example encouraging what became the film’s ending, Anna’s refusal to finish up with Martins because her love for Harry is too powerful and ultimately destructive. It’s moments like these that make The Third Man such a poignant experience. Anna (Aida Valli) is Harry’s former girlfriend. He sells her out to the Russians as a Czech citizen carrying false papers that he had previously made for her, yet the extent to which he’s stolen her heart makes her unfailingly loyal to him. Even when it’s clearly established that Holly has fallen for her and makes a deal to get her smuggled out of the country by the British, she refuses, preferring to face her own ruin rather than betray Harry. In the closing scene, after Holly and Anna have attended Harry’s real funeral, he waits for her, only to watch Anna walk defiantly past him and into a ruined future.

The majority of The Third Man follows Holly’s efforts to investigate the circumstances of Harry’s ‘death’.  That he’s unqualified for the assignment is never in much doubt. Cotten’s character is a writer of pulp fiction, a ‘scribbler with too much drink inside him’, falling foul of the authorities, most often the exasperated Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his dogged Sergeant, Paine (Bernard Lee). Calloway has been trying to catch up with Harry for some time and places little faith in Holly’s attempts to clear his friend’s name, but steadily the American turns up some unusual clues. Meetings with Harry’s friends produce inconsistencies about his final moments. A chat with the porter of Harry’s building reveals that an extra person turned up to help move his body after it had been hit by the car, which turns the search into a hunt for the identity of this ‘third man’, who of course turns out to be Harry himself. Cotten plays Holly as a self-pitying drunk, filled with bad memories and ruminating on personal failings. His character was based on Greene, himself bullied during his years at boarding school and scarred by the experience.

As Holly padfoots the streets, he takes in the full spectacle of Vienna’s ruined splendour in much the same way as Greene did. Extensive shooting took place in the city, though more footage was filmed in Surrey’s Shepperton Studios than is apparent. All the same, there’s little getting away from Vienna’s shattered beauty as it appears in the film, indeed the location is more or less a character in its own right, a wrecked, once thriving metropolis ‘with its easy charm’ that is the sublime backdrop for the black and white photography. Once beautiful buildings, many of which still survive in the film, now project long and eerie shadows, and those shadows contain its citizens, rifling through bins and scrabbling for succour. Reed manipulated Vienna to get the ambience just right, carefully choosing shots that would contain some evocative Gothic structure in the background and soaking the streets prior to filming in order to lend it a cold, wintry sheen. Thousands of feet of film depicting the Viennese were taken, depicting the people peering in baleful curiousity, showing the stark reality of life in this place.

At Shepperton, the sewers were recreated and filmed for the scenes featuring Harry Lime running for his life through the labyrinthine passages. These were then spliced with footage of the actual sewers to make the effect appear seamless. Orson Welles, who portrayed Harry in probably his most famous acting role, refused to work in the real thing on health grounds, leaving the production with no choice but to reproduce them. The extent of Welles’s involvement in The Third Man has always been mythologised and distorted, fans of the auteur going with the suggestion that he scripted and indeed directed all his own scenes. In reality, Welles was in the cast as part of a contract with Korda, which was initially signed to fund a number of directorial efforts but by 1949 had turned sour. Welles believed he’d been messed around with and became a problem for the production, being chased around Italy largely on expenses that were met by the studio before he was finally tracked down and dragged to Vienna. The level of Welles’s chicanery was such that much of his performance was produced by other members of the crew. That isn’t his shadow being chased down the streets by Holly. Those aren’t his fingers reaching forlornly through the sewer grid.

His main contribution was the scene in which Harry and Holly finally meet at the big wheel. It’s one of cinema’s iconic moments, bookended by the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, which Welles ad-libbed from an 1885 lecture by James McNeill Whistler. But the nervous energy Harry displays in this scene had little to do with keeping in character and was in fact a product of Welles’s worries about playing alongside the more accomplished actor, Cotten. The pair had a long association, stretching back to their Mercury Theatre days, and Welles knew full well how talented his collaborator was.

For all that, Welles’s glorified cameo undeniably stole the movie. His face features in all The Third Man’s artwork, despite the little time during which he actually appears in the picture. Perhaps it’s the case of an actor perfectly complementing his role, and what a role it is. Lime’s a villain, more or less psychopathic, but he’s also charming and charismatic, and it’s easy to see why Anna would fall for him so hard. Welles turned out to be ideally cast, with his ironic smile and sense of humour, and there’s no surprise that in the wake of The Third Man, the spin-off radio series followed the adventures of Harry rather than any of the other characters. By all accounts, Welles had great fun reprising his role for the wireless, writing a number of episodes as well as delivering lines and, along the way, transforming the character into something of a rogueish hero.

Many great films only become recognised further down the line, long after their initial release. One thinks of Vertigo, locked away for decades before it was re-evaluated and deemed a masterpiece. Not so with The Third Man, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to be one of the biggest box office hits of the year. Critics fell over themselves to praise the filming, the cast, and especially Carol Reed, the director who overcame the battles between Korda and Selznick, the wiles of Orson Welles, the complaints from Joseph Cotton as the production ran beyond its scheduled limit. Reed had a vision for what The Third Man should be, and realised it. We can all enjoy the results.

The Third Man: *****

Father Goose (1964)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 March (1.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I haven’t watched every title in the cavernous Cary Grant boxset yet, but of those I have the actor is always immaculately turned out – tailored to perfection, suave to the point where effortless loses any meaning. All except one. For his penultimate starring role, Grant opted to play Walter Eckland in Father Goose, swapped the Savile Rows for loose, casual clothes, stopped shaving and never knowingly appeared sober. The result was a success, a fine story that hit the right notes both dramatically and in terms of broad comedy, whilst the star quickly sank into his role to turn Eckland, the sort of man you would expect to be inhabited by Humphrey Bogart circa The African Queen, into more than a novelty character.

Father Goose takes place during World War II. Far from the main theatres of conflict in the South Seas, the British are forced into retreat by Japanese forces and are pulling back from bases that risk being overrun. The local naval commander, Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard), needs people posted on remote islands to keep an eye out on enemy aircraft, and coerces Eckland – who’s little more than a drifter, albeit one with his own boat and steady supply of liquor – into filling in temporarily. The unhappy Walter accesses his new home, a spit of tropical paradise, with little sense of civilisation other than a hut containing a radio, and starts reluctantly sending messages to Houghton in exchange for the locations of booze bottles that have been hidden away. He’s forced to go by the codename Mother Goose, though frequently forgets this.

Given the opportunity to visit a neighbouring island and fetch his replacement radio operator, Eckland finds the Japanese have got there before him and killed the man. They missed Leslie Caron’s embassy teacher, Catherine Freneau, however, and the seven schoolchildren who accompany her, and he ends up taking all of them back to his base. It’s a working relationship made for disaster. Miss Freneau is appalled by Frank’s scruffiness and drinking. He has no place in his life for a snooty teacher and even less for kids. And yet, over time the pair reach an understanding and inevitably fall for each other, whilst they await rescue and attempt to avoid the encroaching enemy.

Grant had wanted a role like Eckland for some time and clearly relishes playing the cantankerous loner on a mission to escape the bits of the world that contain other people. According to Caron and Stephanie Berrington, who played the oldest child and develops a girlish crush on his character, he was great fun to work with, and had an entire team of writers on hand to polish jokes in the script. Howard has a good time also as the seaman who shows endless patience in his willingness to indulge Eckland’s wiles and grumpiness.

But it all pivots on the blossoming relationship between Eckland and Catherine. The pair have a number of great scenes together, their mutual spikiness undermining everything each other stands for. Neither can gain the upper hand. Catherine hides the booze in an attempt to reform his character, which just riles him and has the pair slapping each other in the face , completely deadpan. In one of the best scenes, Catherine thinks she has been bitten by a water snake (it turns out to be a tree branch) and Walter learns that the poison carried by the local serpents is invariably deadly. Having attempted to suck out the venom, he resorts to desperate measures and gets her drunk, leading to them telling their life stories and Catherine surprising him with her gymnastic abilities. There’s some great interplay between Grant and the kids also, as the latter develop a liking for the grizzled guy and warn him when Catherine’s approaching so that he can hide his grog bottle.

Despite the peril of discovery and attack, the main focus is on comedy, meaning the potential suspense of being assailed by Japanese hordes is never very palpable and any remaining tension is purely sexual in nature. Perhaps director Ralph Nelson, who cut his teeth in television and wisely concentrated his camera on the performers, thought the sight of a megastar like Grant roughing it held enough shock value. It’s slightly overlong at nearly two hours and, once Catherine enters the story, really has only one direction. Yet it’s all played so winningly, the limited characters so likeable, that it can’t really fail and it doesn’t. The sharp screenplay, by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, who based Father Goose on a short story by SH Barnett, won an Academy Award.

Father Goose: ***

Brief Encounter (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 27 July (3.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

The 100th review on this site covers one of the unimpeachably finest examples of British cinema, and a reminder that before he was handed lavish budgets and dealt with grand subjects, David Lean was capable of producing genius from intimate little films about ordinary people.

Brief Encounter marked the final collaboration between Lean and Noel Coward. It’s based on the latter’s play Still Life, Lean taking a hand in the linear narrative by telling the story in flashback. Both are instances of economic construction. Celia Johnson was given the role played on stage by Gertrude Lawrence of Laura Jesson, a housewife in her 30s whose routine includes Thursday trips into Milford. It’s during one of these visits, while Laura waits in the Milford Junction train station cafe for her connection, that her ‘brief encounter’ begins. Suffering from grit in her eye, she’s attended to by Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a physician who successfully removes it before catching his own train home. Laura thinks little of the incident besides a feeling of gratitude and mild interest, but a chance meeting the following week gives the romance a chance to blossom. Before long, the pair are spending their Thursdays together, Alec forgoing his practice to meet Laura in restaurants and going to the cinema with her. And then they kiss, the start of an affair both know is wrong yet neither wants to end.

The story is told from Laura’s perspective, and her narration provides the film’s heart. From the start of the affair, it’s made clear that she doesn’t really like it. The love she quickly develops for Alec is a sensation she’s trapped within. It’s something she literally can’t help, but it brings her no happiness, only guilt as she returns home to her solid, boring husband (Cyril Raymond), treats every illness her children succumb to as moral punishment and listens to the emotionally turbulent piano concertos of Rachmaninov, which are wholly reflective of her mood. The comparisons with Wuthering Heights – another tale of passion between two people that’s ill advised and brings only misery – are possible to make, but the resolution is entirely different. The film’s called Brief Encounter for a reason. Laura and Alex never go beyond their stolen Thursdays together, and the affair ends when the Doctor takes a job in Johannesburg, giving every impression of fleeing the country rather than letting their relationship develop beyond something they can control.

Also worthy of note is the way the affair develops, from nothing and entirely based on a chance encounter. It’s a sentiment never overly stated, the randomness of life and the way it’s filled with moments like these. What matters is how they’re acted upon, the decisions by Laura and Alec ultimately to suppress their desires and go back to their normal lives. The film’s ending may appear downbeat; it’s easy to imagine a twenty first century picture finishing on the couple giving up their past lives because ‘they’re made for each other’, yet real life isn’t like the movies and Laura and Alec’s parting has the whiff of authenticity. Neither’s a bad person. Both have family commitments, not to mention the fact they love their spouses and children.

Trevor Howard’s career broke on his performance as Alec. He spent the rest of his acting life trying to live the part down, but in hindsight had the happy record of looking back on major roles in the top two British films of the 20th century. But this is Celia Johnson’s picture. Her narration – my copy of the Carlton DVD release features her quietly desperate voice on the menu; it’s really haunting – is just lovely, delivering all the misery and hysteria that her face only rarely conveys. It’s a performance that is surprisingly unsexy. Again, almost impossible to imagine now, but her affair is restricted to passionate kisses. No clothes come off. Neither is she the kind of beguiling beauty that one imagines, though when she breaks into a smile her entire face lights up.

The town scenes were filmed in Beaconsfield, whilst Carnforth Station doubled as Milford Junction as it was on the main line and shots of real expresses powering through could be filmed. The cafe, the film’s pivotal set, was filmed in a studio, and allowed supporting players Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey to blossom. Holloway’s good natured station master is a treat and plays beautifully against the cafe manager, with Carey affecting graces and sticking to rules in running a tight ship.

Brief Encounter is a wonderful piece of work, acted sublimely and directed perfectly by Lean, who makes it look so natural as though he simply pointed the camera at his performers and let them do the rest. There’s just one scene that lapses into outright fantasy (Laura imagining a glamorous life for Alec and herself); the rest feels organic and so unforced that it’s possible to get the impression the characters ignored the script and started taking the film in the direction they wanted it to go. But that’s great art, and that’s life. As Alec and Laura spend their last, gloomy minutes together in the cafe, they’re interrupted by one of the latter’s gossipy friends. The moment’s shattered. That final kiss never happens. It’s one final tragedy in a film filled with them.

Brief Encounter: *****