Monday, September 30, 2019

Flashback, September 1949: ‘Third Man’ Exposes Evil in Postwar Vienna

The Third Man, which premiered in the U.K. 70 years ago this month, is now frequently regarded as the greatest British film of all time. 

No wonder—it featured a supernova of creative forces in front of and behind the camera: producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, director Carol Reed, assistant director Guy Hamilton (who later graduated to helm three James Bond features), stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and, in a small but pivotal role, Orson Welles

The production history of this drama set in postwar Vienna is fascinating in and of itself, including the clash of wills between Korda and Selznick, the accidental discovery of the musician who contributed the distinctive “zither music,” Anton Karas, and the hurdles thrown up at will by the willful Welles.

But the prime mover behind this classic thriller may have been Graham Greene. Not only did the finished feature stick closely to both the novella he wrote as, in effect, a treatment as well as the screenplay, but it sounds themes he returned to consistently throughout his five-decade writing career. 

Easily among the most famous literary converts to Roman Catholicism in the last century, Greene still resisted making his chief characters simple conveyors of virtue. Riven by doubt himself even after converting, Greene depicted characters twisting in the coils of sin, utterly unable to escape even when they knew the right path to take. The Third Man was no different.

Until relatively late in his career, Greene classified his novellas as one of his “entertainments,” a name given to distinguish his crime melodramas from his other, supposedly more profound, works. But, as he recognized as time went on, that division was too neat and facile.

Like many entertainers, Greene knew how to pay more attention to his work by joking about it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the satire directed at the hack writer of Westerns, Holly Martins, when a literary group he’s to address presses him for something profound.

"They want you to talk on the crisis of faith," he is told.

"Cri-? What's that?" Martins asks, stupefied. 

"Oh, I thought you'd know,” comes the reply. “You're a writer."

In a discomfort he could never have previously imagined, Martins must address this “crisis” not only in a lecture hall or on the printed page but also in his own life. He will have to answer to what extent his loyalty matters when the friend he thought he knew so well, Harry Lime, turns out to have made a fortune peddling diluted penicillin that resulted in the maiming and deaths of countless innocent children. 

Divided politically by four occupying powers who often find it hard to speak the same language, the Vienna of The Third Man is riven spiritually by the eternal sins of greed and hatred. Through the Oscar-winning cinematography of Robert Krasker, the “old Vienna of Strauss music and bogus easy charm” has been reduced to a city of shadowy, slightly tilted streets. 

Martins, a penniless pulp fiction writer, finds it even more dangerous here than his earlier callow predecessors, the American innocents abroad of Henry James. Amid proud but crumbling buildings, it is not merely hard to see here, but even to maintain one’s balance. It is a striking visualization of Greeneland.

With the war having reduced survivors to a Darwinian struggle for existence, crossing borders, geographically and ethically, becomes commonplace, even expected. Identities are cast aside, then utterly confused. Martins is mistaken at the hotel for a more acclaimed author; Anna Schmidt mixes up his first name with that of her onetime lover and Martins’ friend, Harry Lime; Martins drunkenly calls the unillusioned British Major Calloway “Callaghan”; and the plot centers on the uncertainty identity of the title character.

But it is in the sewers of Vienna that Greene finds the ultimate metaphor—a Stygian repository for human waste to which the desperate run for an illusory escape. Even amid the loud roar of this rushing underground river, humanity runs aground. From here, fate—what passes for the justice of God in this fallen world—arrives in the form of a relentless police manhunt.

The late, fine mystery novelist Philip Kerr suggested that, in the confrontation between Martins and Lime on the Ferris wheel in Vienna’s Prater Park, Greene underscored the moral hypocrisy of the Western victors of the war, as Harry disclaims any sense of responsibility for his victims: “Victims?” says Harry. “Don’t be melo­dramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money?”

There is another way, however, to view this scene: as one where the devil cites scripture to his purpose. Lime, a figure of energy and charisma, binds men and women to him. But all of that intelligence and charm, instead of being directed toward life-affirming ends, is devoted to selfish ones. Rapid by necessity on his feet, he is just as agile with his tongue, as made beautifully clear in a speech ad-libbed by Welles:

"You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love--they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

But all of this is clever, honeyed words. Not only does Lime take facts taken out of context (the Renaissance was hardly confined to Italy), but he doesn’t address the sources of Martins’ rage: How can Harry endanger the lives of innocent people? If he loved Anna as much as he said, why did he betray her to the Russians by disclosing the secret of her forged papers?

Greene’s friend Kim Philby—the British intelligence operative who sold secrets to the Russians—has been proposed as a model for Lime. (Philby’s given first name was Harry.) But it might be even more appropriate to regard Greene himself as a possible source for the character. Not only was his real first name Harry, but the character was associated with a fruit of a green(e) color. 

And both author and creation remain nominal Catholics, with Lime remarking cheerfully to Holly, "Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I'm not hurting anyone's souls by what I do.The dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here, poor devils."

If Harry Lime lives—and he does, more so than any other character in the film or, arguably, throughout all of European film noir—it might be because Greene (himself a serial betrayer, of his marriage vows) was a paradoxical secret sharer of his sinful humanity. 

In a famous address on “The Virtue of Disloyalty” given at the University of Hamburg, Greene observed: “Loyalty confines you to accepted opinions: loyalty forbids you to comprehend sympathetically your dissident fellows; but disloyalty encourages you to roam through any human mind: it gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding." 

That “extra dimension of understanding” elevates The Third Man to an unforgettable cinematic experience long after Anna cold-shoulders Martins at the wintry second funeral in the haunting final scene.

TV Quote of the Day (‘M*A*S*H,’ With Radar Finding It Tough to Get to the Point)

Radar O’Reilly (played by Gary Burghoff): “Sir, I have something to report that I wish I could do almost anything else instead of, but which I guess I got no choice.”

Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda): “Radar, if you bring that sentence in for a fitting I can have it shortened by Wednesday.”—M*A*S*H, Season 4, Episode 14, “The Gun,” original air date Dec. 2, 1975, teleplay by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, directed by Burt Metcalfe

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Flashback, September 1969: ‘Abbey Road’ Brings Beatle Saga to ‘The End’

Abbey Road, the LP that represented the final collaboration of The Beatles, was released this month 50 years ago to a public largely unaware of the tensions that had disrupted and sidelined their prior album. As the group climbed the charts again with this latest song, the news that they were splitting plunged their fans into gloom.

As I recounted in a prior post, Rubber Soul remains my favorite LP by the Fab Four, with hardly a dud from start to finish. Revolver and, of course, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been acclaimed as revolutionary.

But critics and fans have been correct in calling Abbey Road a masterpiece. In their final days, The Beatles continued to develop and innovate as songwriters and musicians, and even as their lyrics speak of the greatest stress they had ever experienced in their professional lives, the sonic surface was as smooth and gorgeous as anything they had ever put to vinyl.

No small credit for both came from the group member who might have come the longest way as a musical force: George Harrison. It was not only that his composition, “Something” represented his first A-side single for the quartet, but that—after being widely regarded as a mediocre guitarist in the early days of Beatlemania—he had become a peerless practitioner of his instrument. His confidence was evident in every note he played. 

“The quiet Beatle” who had chafed at having his suggestions or contributions to prior albums shot down by Paul McCartney and John Lennon had even learned, like the two principal Beatles songwriters, to channel his frustrations into song. 

“Here Comes the Sun” reflects Harrison’s elation when, after a stressful business meeting in the spring with his bandmates about the management dispute that eventually sundered them, he was able to drive out to the estate of good friend Eric Clapton and enjoy the first real sunshine of the season. 

The time in the studio for Harrison and the other Beatles went far more smoothly than it had at the start of the year, when a planned album and documentary, Get Back, had to be shelved because of acrimony during recording sessions. (The tapes had been in such chaotic shape that Phil Spector, called in to salvage the product, released it over a year later as Let It Be—much to Paul’s consternation’s over the super-producer’s “Wall of Sound.”)

After a few months, McCartney approached longtime producer George Martin about working with them again. He agreed to do so, but only if they were more cooperative this time. They were as good as their word.

Years later, Martin still thought of this last collaboration as his favorite with the group he had helped to stardom: "It was a very, very happy album. Everybody worked frightfully well and that's why I'm very fond of it." 

For me, the emotional centerpiece of the LP is the Side 2 medley, a string of half-finished songs that Paul figured out how to turn into a long suite. (In its wake, other artists would be emboldened to try similar quicksilver sonic experimentation, such as Cat Stevens in “Foreigner Suite” and Marvin Gaye in Here, My Dear.) It rises to a level of wistfulness in “Golden Slumbers,” where McCartney seemed to acknowledge the increasing difficulty of recovering the group’s initial joy in music-making (“Once there was a way to get back homeward”), and concluded with what amounted to a final bow in “The End,” with each of the Fab Four (even the reluctant Ringo) taking turns soloing.

Even Lennon, not above bad-mouthing McCartney in the months after the group’s breakup, couldn’t help tipping his hat to the lyric that concluded the medley and, it turned out, the group’s relationship with its fans: “And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”

 For a group that began singing about love (“Can’t Buy Me Love”) and gave one of its most buoyant endorsements of the emotion (“All You Need is Love”), it might have been the only truly appropriate way to bid farewell.

Song Lyric of the Day (Clara Fiske Scott, on ‘Glimpses of Truth’ From God)

“Open my eyes, that I may see
glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
place in my hand the wonderful key
that shall unclasp and set me free.”— American composer Clara H. Fiske Scott (1841-1897), The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 454,"Open My Eyes"