The trouble with Harry: Placing "The Third Man"

Back in 1999 The Third Man (1949) was voted the best British film of the 20th century, its Britishness hanging on the origins of its director (Carol Reed) and screenwriter (Graham Greene).  But Britain’s claim on The Third Man has always seemed somewhat arbitrary.  It is a film defined at every turn by internationalism, the story of an American in Vienna written and directed by Britons and produced by a Hungarian-cum-Englishman (Alexander Korda; in the U.S., the film was distributed by David O. Selznick).  Perhaps it’s this internationalism that has always made The Third Man such a hard film to place, exactly, and that has also made it so unlike any other film of its time.  Some of the turns of its plot resemble those of Casablanca, but it could hardly be said to deliver the same sort of uncomplicated “entertainment value” that that film does; its pleasures are far more curious, subtle, adult.  At the end of the film Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles have a scene together and we’re reminded of Citizen Kane (perhaps a better point of reference than Casablanca)—but then The Third Man doesn’t resemble Kane very much, either, except perhaps in its visual boldness. 

The Third Man simply is not like any other film: it is only itself.  It certainly doesn’t look like other movies from 1949, American or British.  Its cockeyed angles, lingering close-ups, and long takes (that final shot!) feel downright audacious when held up next to, say, Kind Hearts and Coronets or White Heat, to choose two contemporary films at random.  The Third Man belongs to no particular country or cinematic tradition or genre (is it a noir or not?).  It’s a patchwork movie set in a patchwork city, the fragmented Vienna of the post-war years, divided into Russian, French, British, and American zones, as seen through the baroque chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker’s cinematography and set to the wry, jangling rhythms of Anton Karas’ score.              

There’s also an attention to seemingly insignificant characters and objects that one rarely sees in commercial sound cinema of this period, Hitchcock’s films being one exception.  I’m thinking of the moon-faced little boy who appears at the doorway when Cotten is arguing with the porter; the cat chewing on Orson Welles’ shoelaces; the parrot that nips at Cotten’s finger; the cup of dice that Alida Valli plays with distractedly while she’s in Harry’s bedroom; the balloon seller, who looks like he has wandered over from Fritz Lang's M.  The Third Man is a treasure trove of grace notes, weird props, minor players.  Why is it so affecting, for example, when Paine (Bernard Lee), the Cockney sergeant and right-hand man of Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway, is shot and killed during the climactic melee in the sewers?  Perhaps because it’s so unexpected (what reason has he to die?), but also perhaps because even though his part amounts to little more than a bit he’s one of the most affable and least shady person in the film—so affable, in fact, that he apologizes to Cotten’s Holly Martins right after he has socked him in the jaw.  The Third Man may not be the expression of a single, identifiable auteur (a point that’s been made by Peter Bogdanovich), but there are fingerprints all over it.     



"L'Avventura": Wanderers in the space of desire

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are so stylish and atmospheric that it’s tempting to see them as expressions of pure surface.  His astonishing run of early 1960s films—L’Avventura in 1960, La Notte in 1961, L’Eclisse in 1962, Red Desert in 1964—are high on mood and low on narrative momentum, even when they seem to be about such dramatic situations as disappearances and break-ups.  L’Avventura, which baffled audiences when it premiered at Cannes, deceives us by setting up a mystery that is not only never solved but also gradually forgotten about by the characters themselves.  As the search for the missing Anna (Lea Massari) comes to feel less and less urgent, L’Avventura morphs into an oblique, chilly tone poem about her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), who embarks on an affair with Anna’s not-particularly-distraught lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Claudia and Sandro spend the second half of the film drifting from town to town, ostensibly in search of Anna but acting more out of aimlessness than anything else.  

L’Avventura is an environment unto itself, serene and cool and always quivering with a vague ominousness that never quite comes to a boil, as exemplified in the brilliant scene where Claudia finds herself in a village square surrounded by leering men who circle her like wild dogs.  But then the last forty minutes or so happen, and you realize that L’Avventura isn’t “just” an exercise in style at atmosphere at all—it has become an eerily perceptive account of the psychological stress that attends a new relationship, the direction of which is uncertain.  (“Avventura” means both “adventure” and “affair.”)  We watch as Claudia tries to navigate the space of her desire for Sandro: at first apprehensive and guilty, she eventually succumbs to it, allowing herself to be overwhelmed with passion.  Until recently I had always hated the scene late in the film when, besotted and giddy, Claudia dances around her hotel room to a dumb pop song.  It always seemed like such a hokey, tone-deaf scene in what is otherwise an impeccably hip film.  Then I realized how naked and moving Claudia’s love for Sandro is in that moment—naked to the point of being embarrassing.  She is naïve and touching in her confidence that this is real, and that it will last.  But in the final scenes of the film we see her riven with doubt, fear, and panic (and guilt—she imagines the vanished Anna returning to stake her claim on Sandro). 

Claudia, love-sick.

L’Avventura captures the sense in which two lovers may occupy entirely different emotional states even as they traverse the same ground of their relationship together.  Time, too, becomes elastic in this state: the film captures the feeling of infatuation, of being drunk on sex, of not being able to concentrate on anything other than the object of one’s desire, and of moments apart that seem to stretch on endlessly.  (Antonioni and Vitti somehow make Claudia’s boredom fascinating, as we watch her stay up all night waiting for Sandro, doodling on newspapers, making faces at herself in the mirror, reciting random numbers to herself.)  The film is a record of an adventure and a journey, but Antonioni misdirects us so that we don’t realize we’ve been pulled into the story of an entirely different adventure, and an entirely different journey, from the one we thought we were watching.  

Vitti as Claudia: bored but never boring.


The Films of 2017: A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” a tip-off that this will not be a supernatural thriller in the vein of, say, Poltergeist.  Moody, pensive, and spare, it’s not out to sting you with jump scares.  Rather, it meditates on such subjects as the nature of death, the passage of time, and the ephemeral traces left behind by the departed.  The ghost in question is a recently deceased musician, C (Casey Affleck), who during his life shared a shabby little ranch house in rural Texas with his partner M (Rooney Mara).  After he’s killed in a car accident C’s spirit returns to the house draped in a white sheet, silently looking on as M mourns for him.  Eventually she sells the house and moves away, leaving him behind, at which point the film takes a series of completely unexpected turns, its plot ranging across vast distances of time and space along with its restless central figure. 


Zbigniew and James

Cybulski as Maciek in the ruined chapel.

Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-1967) has often been called “the Polish James Dean,” partly because he was the very public face of the hot new Polish art cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, partly because (like Dean) he died young, at the age of thirty-nine, in an accident.  I was thinking more about the comparison upon rewatching Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958) earlier this week, in which Cybulski plays Maciek, a hip, scrappy, embittered soldier of the Polish Underground, tasked by his comrade to assassinate a newly appointed Communist Party secretary on V-E Day (the entire film unfolds over the course of some twenty-four hours, much like Rebel Without a Cause).  While he waits for an opportune moment to carry out the assassination, biding his time in the bar of the hotel where his target is attending a victory banquet, Maciek busies himself by making eyes at a pretty barmaid.  Together they enjoy one night of happiness, making love and wandering through the ruins of the small Polish town before the appointed time comes, he completes his mission, the sun rises, and he is gunned down in the street. 

Maciek with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska).
So, much like the characters in the James Dean canon, all those troubled boys with their masc, punchy, one-syllable names (Jim from Rebel, Cal from East of Eden, Jett from Giant) Maciek is a bad boy and a romantic, beautiful and doomed, a figure for tragic youth.  He struts through the film wearing a pair of shades (I like to imagine they’re yellow-tinted) until finally he dies on a garbage heap, writing in pain and kicking his heals in the air, letting out a last gasp as the film fades to black: one of the great unforgettable endings in European art cinema.  The connection to Dean also has something to do with a shared acting style specific to the mid/late 1950s.  Cybulski’s performance is poised somewhere between the grand gestures of the classical style (there’s a moment where, in the ruined church with Krystyna, he lashes out with his whole body in an expression of torment that feels deliberately composed rather than natural) and the spontaneity of Method acting.  Cybulski may not walk that line as carefully as Dean did in his best roles, but his Maciek is still unforgettable and heartbreaking.  And there is dark humor there, too, as when Maciek tries to distract Krystyna by getting her to talk about her family (“and what about your brothers and sisters?”) while he fumbles to pick up a stray bullet from the floor of his hotel room.

A touch of farce: looking for the lost bullet.


In memoriam: Jeanne Moreau, 1928-2017

Pictured: the late Jeanne Moreau with Jean-Marc Bory in The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958); with Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1958); with Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961); in Jules et Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1962); with Claude Mann in Bay of Angels (dir. Jacques Demy, 1962); with Maurice Ronet in The Fire Within (dir. Louis Malle, 1963); with Jean Ozenne in Diary of a Chambermaid (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1964); in The Bride Wore Black (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1968); with Lucia Bose in Nathalie Granger (dir. Marguerite Duras, 1972); in Querelle (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982); and with Melvil Poupaud in Time To Leave (dir. Francois Ozon, 2006). 

Moreau could play steely and cold in movies like Bay of Angels, which Pauline Kael likened to a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle.  She could do a caricature of Dietrich for Fassbinder in Querelle.  She could be a free spirit, a bored housewife, a femme fatale: as Catherine in Jules et Jim, she plays nearly all of these roles at various points.  Her entrance in that film is one of the great entrances in cinema.  Perhaps no other actress could have been so enchanting as to convince us that the two title characters would spend the next thirty years of their lives in reckless pursuit of her.  Jules and Jim see her as the embodiment of an ancient statue whose face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—has obsessed them since their youth. 

Moreau’s appeal didn’t rest on prettiness; it had to do with something regal, vibrant, and slightly haunted about her.  Even in her liveliest roles, like Catherine, there comes a point when the fun and games stop and she reveals some intensely private and wounded part of herself.  Her liveliness and joy suddenly congeal into a heaviness around her cheeks and her mouth.  (Jules and Jim is about nothing so much as the decades-long struggle of its male characters to reconcile themselves to these two sides of her personality.)  In The Lovers that moment happens when, almost immediately after walking out on her family with her new paramour, still radiating afterglow, she suddenly catches sight of herself in a café mirror and seems to freeze.  She searches her face as if for some answer to who she is and what she’s doing.  Those of us who have spent nearly a lifetime watching her on screen will continue to search her face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—for answers to those same questions.