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The Third Man (Aug. 31, 1949)

The Third Man
The Third Man (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions

OK. True confessions time.

I don’t really like the music in The Third Man.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s catchy as hell and does a good job of establishing the post-war Vienna setting, but I find it wildly at odds with the mood of some of the dramatic scenes. After the first couple of reels I was sick of it. Not because it’s a bad tune, but because of the way it was used in the film.

I know I’m in the minority with this opinion. The music is one of the most commonly praised aspects of the film. The simple zither melodies in The Third Man made the previously unknown Viennese musician Anton Karas internationally famous. After the film’s release, “The Harry Lime Theme” — which recurs throughout the picture — sold half a million copies and worldwide sales of zithers reportedly skyrocketed (from their previous sales position of “next to nothing,” one presumes).

I first saw The Third Man about a decade ago. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece.

Recently, I’ve seen more films by the director, Carol Reed, and better come to appreciate his talent. Three years ago I reviewed Odd Man Out (1947) and said that I thought it was better than The Third Man. I wrote, “[James] Mason is a more compelling central presence than any of the actors are in The Third Man, and the music, cinematography, editing, and direction are all tighter in Odd Man Out.”

Last year I reviewed The Fallen Idol (1948). With that review I didn’t take another swipe at The Third Man, and simply said that Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man are “as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.”

I stand by that statement, and I liked The Third Man a lot more this time than the first time I watched it. I don’t like it quite as much as The Fallen Idol, which had more personal resonance for me, but it’s a brilliant film.

Three films in a row that are as good as Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man is an extremely rare feat, and only the greatest of directors have ever pulled it off (like Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick).

Cotten on the stairs

Like The Fallen Idol, The Third Man is a collaboration between Reed and writer Graham Greene. It stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American writer of popular western novels. Holly Martins arrives in Vienna, looking for his old friend Harry Lime, only to find out that Harry Lime was hit by a car and died a few days before his arrival.

At Harry’s funeral, Holly Martins meets a pair of British Army Police, the stiff-upper-lipped Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and the more rough-and-tumble Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee). (Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen a James Bond film from the ’60s or ’70s, you’ll recognize Lee as Bond’s superior, “M.”)

Holly Martins also meets Harry Lime’s girlfriend, the beautiful actress Anna Schmidt, who is played by Alida Valli — she’s listed in the credits as simply “Valli,” as she was in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and the Frank Sinatra shmaltz-fest The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

Eyewitness reports of Harry Lime’s death don’t add up — did only two men spirit his body away from the scene of the accident, or was there a “third man”? Holly Martins begins to suspect that there is more to the story than he’s been told.

Cotten at the fairgrounds

Joseph Cotten has the most screen time in The Third Man, but the presence of the mysterious Harry Lime and the character of postwar Vienna both dominate the film.

Like Germany and Berlin, Austria and Vienna were broken into zones after World War II — British, American, French, and Russian. And just like in Berlin, the black market was booming.

Harry Lime was deeply involved in the black market, and in the worst way possible. He sold penicillin, which was desperately needed, but he diluted it to make more money, and many children and adults died as a result.

Orson Welles shows up late in the film to explicate Harry Lime’s philosophy to Holly Martins, and it’s these lines that are some of the film’s most enduring.

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, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Welles is a magnetic presence, and his nihilistic philosophy in The Third Man is seductive. I’ve even heard his words quoted as a celebration of death and destruction. (I suppose that like all great art, his speech is what you make of it.)

Third Man sewers

You know what? I take back what I said about the music. I started writing this review last night, and woke up with “The Harry Lime Theme” in my head. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all morning while finishing this review.

I still find it at odds with the mood of the film, but perhaps a delicious sense of irony was Reed’s intention.

The Third Man is a brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted, and wonderfully involving film.

After three amazing films in a row, I’m really looking forward to seeing Carol Reed’s next picture, Outcast of the Islands (1951), which no one ever talks about.

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Green for Danger (Dec. 5, 1946)

Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger, based on the novel by Christianna Brand, is a terrific whodunnit, replete with the cream of the crop of post-war British film thespians.

The story takes place over the course of one week in 1944 at Heron’s Park Emergency Hospital, a requisitioned and converted Elizabethan manor in the English countryside. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, as the doctors, nurses, and administrators tend to the sick and the wartime wounded while squabbling and engaging in petty jealousies as German bombers fly overhead.

Alastair Sim, who plays Inspector Cockrill, doesn’t show up until halfway through the film, but he narrates it from the beginning, introducing us to a group of doctors and nurses circled around a patient in the operating theater; surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), a stocky, dark-haired Lothario; anesthetist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), who is engaged to the pretty blonde, Nurse Linley (Sally Gray); hysterical Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John); strait-laced Sister Bates (Judy Campbell); and portly Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins). Inspector Cockrill informs us that it is August 17, 1944, and that by August 22, 1944, two of these characters will be dead, and one of them will be revealed as a murderer.

I like a mystery that establishes its parameters early in the story, and Green for Danger does exactly that. The fact that we’re quickly introduced to the six main characters while their hair and faces are covered by surgical caps and masks means you’ll have to be paying especially close attention if you want to remember who everyone is at first glance, but if you aren’t, never fear. The characters in this film are sharply drawn, and the actors bring them to life wonderfully.

Trevor Howard as Dr. Barnes is the embodiment of the British middle class; his entire body is one big stiff upper lip. Leo Genn probably isn’t anyone’s current idea of a ladykiller, but his smoothness and charisma make him utterly convincing. Sally Gray is lovely to look at, although when she and Rosamund John were both wearing surgical caps I found them difficult to tell apart. I especially liked Judy Campbell, whose role could have been one-note, but who manages to instill the severe Sister Bates with a good deal of humanity.

The first murder — or was it murder? — takes place when a postman named Higgins (Moore Marriott), injured after a bomb attack, dies on the operating table. Recriminations fly, but his death is written off as an accident until one of the nurses screams during a party that she knows it was murder, and she can prove it. She rushes off into the night, stalked by a killer. This sequence is genuinely terrifying, and is reminiscent of an Italian giallo, with dark shadows, swinging doors, and shutters blowing open and closed in the wind to create dramatic lighting effects.

Inspector Cockrill’s appearance marks a shift in tone, as the film becomes more comic. Cockrill is the diametrical opposite of Dr. Barnes and Mr. Eden. While they are perfectly groomed, neatly coiffed, and sharply attired, he is bald, with shocks of gray hair above his ears, outfitted in an ill-fitting, rumpled suit with a drooping pocket square. He’s a collection of tics, constantly shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows.

He’s also the shrewdest man in the room. When Dr. Barnes disparagingly refers to flat-footed coppers, Cockrill responds, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches, Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.”

Alastair Sim is a fantastic actor, and he exudes authority as Inspector Cockrill, even when he’s doing a pratfall. Cockrill is a fantastic creation, and watching this film made me wish there were an entire series of films featuring the character. He keeps his suspects constantly off-kilter with inappropriate jokes and ironic comments, and he seems mildly amused by everything, including himself.

Green for Danger was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had lately. It’s genuinely good escapist entertainment.

I See a Dark Stranger (July 4, 1946)

Frank Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger, which premiered in the United Kingdom on July 4, 1946, is half a loaf of noir slathered with generous helpings of romance and comedy. It’s a very enjoyable picture that’s notable as a star vehicle for the lovely Deborah Kerr before she was well-known in Hollywood.

The opening of the film is pure noir. Shadows fall heavily on the quiet nighttime streets of a little town with signs all about in French. A panicked man rushes through the town, searching for something. Suddenly there’s a shot of something that doesn’t quite fit, and the narrator’s voice appears on the soundtrack. “An Isle of Man signpost outside a French town,” he says. “That’s odd. But we’ve started this tale at the wrong moment.”

He goes on to tell us that this is really the story of Bridie Quilty (Kerr), and we see the young woman in the pub where she works as she eavesdrops on her father’s boozy tales of the Irish Revolution, rapt, even mouthing the words of his story at one point. Bridie hates the English and the memory of Oliver Cromwell as much as the most hardened member of the I.R.A. does, and wants nothing more than to join the group when she reaches the age of majority, just like her father did. The film treats her fervor lightly, however, and right off the bat the viewer knows that this coming-of-age story will contain a fair measure of disillusionment for its protagonist. But not, of course, before she gets in over her head.

As soon as Bridie turns 21, she heads for Dublin to make contact with a former compatriot of her father, a man named Michael O’Callaghan (Brefni O’Rorke). Far from the fearsome soldier she expected, O’Callaghan is a mild-mannered curator of a museum who doesn’t seem to mind seeing a large painting of Cromwell every day and feels that the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that partitioned the country were fair enough, which boggles Bridie’s mind. More significantly, he seems to have never heard of her father, which should raise a red flag, but doesn’t, since Bridie is as bull-headed as she is patriotic.

Undeterred by her experience in the museum, Bridie looks for resistance where she can find it, and falls in with a man named Miller (Raymond Huntley). He appears at first glance to be a rumpled Englishman, but Bridie learns that he’s a spy working against the English, so she goes to work for him without a second thought.

Bridie is blithely unaware of politics outside of Ireland and the U.K., and the film is clever enough to share her point of view for some time. Astute viewers, of course, will immediately be able to suss out exactly which nation Miller is spying for, but it’s not directly stated for awhile. As far as Bridie’s concerned, the enemy of her enemy is her friend. After hearing how much Bridie hates every last Englishman, Miller says to her, “For a subject of a neutral country, aren’t you being a little belligerent?” Bridie responds, “There’s nothing belligerent about it. It’s entirely a question of which side I’m neutral on.”

As I said, I See a Dark Stranger is a mixture of noir and comedy. It’s heavier on the comedy than it is on the thrills, especially toward the end, but for the first half, there are some sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in any other espionage potboiler, such as the scene in which Bridie has to dispose of a corpse, and comes up with the ingenious notion of putting the body in a wheelchair and pushing it through town as though she’s just taking an old man for a walk (she’s really heading for the cliffs overlooking the ocean). It’s never very serious, though, and the film is generally more interested in humorous situations and amusing characterizations than it is in plot points.

Kerr is fantastic, and carries the picture with ease. Trevor Howard is great, too. He plays Lt. David Baynes, a Brit who becomes infatuated with Bridie and realizes too late the amount of trouble she’s in. There are also two very funny caricatures of stiff upper-lipped British policemen, Capt. Goodhusband (Garry Marsh) and Lt. Spanswick (Tom Macaulay) who may very well have served as the inspiration for Hergé’s comic characters Dupont et Dupond (Thomson and Thompson in English translation), two detectives who are indistinguishable from each other. Spanswick and Goodhusband are both bald, have neat little black mustaches, and say things like “Cheerio, old boy.” By the end of the picture, however, they’re allowed to grow out of their stereotyped roles, are fairly easy to tell apart, and even get a few intentionally funny lines, such as when Spanswick says to a hotel manager who is afraid that German prisoners of war may have escaped from the nearby internment camp to hide out in her hotel, “If the food I’ve had here is anything to go by, they’re more likely to escape from the hotel and beat it for the internment camp.”