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.

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