Out of the Past 

'The Third Man' uniquely captures dark spirit of film noir

'The Third Man' uniquely captures dark spirit of film noir

The Third Man

dir.: Carol Reed

NR, 100 min.

Now showing at the Belcourt Theatre

The archetypal film noir antihero entered American cinema shortly after World War II, beginning as a darker variation on the crusty reporter of 1930s screwball comedies, and swiftly developing into the morally suspect cynic who’s just low enough to see the dirt on everyone else’s shoes. Later, in the ’50s, Alfred Hitchcock would retain the bleak soul of noir in snazzier movies with brighter palettes, and he would invert the heroic type with his stock “innocent man wrongly accused” character. Now it was the supporting cast whose shady dealings projected a black spot on the protagonist, as Hitchcock proposed that we were all guilty of something if we considered the matter thoroughly.

In between these phases of noir came the British suspense classic The Third Man, released in 1949. Written by cosmopolitan novelist Graham Greene and directed by classy English gentleman Carol Reed, The Third Man showed Old World polish while practically codifying the visual language of noir—cockeyed angles, wet streets, and exaggerated shadows that stretch menacingly across crumbling walls.

But perhaps the most provocative aspect of The Third Man is its bumbling hero, Holly Martins. The inimitable Joseph Cotten plays Martins, a deadbeat writer of Western novels who travels to Vienna chasing a job offer from an old college chum, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, when Martins arrives at Lime’s front door, he learns that his friend has just been killed in a freak truck accident. Even worse, when he pops in at Harry’s funeral, Martins learns that his pal has been under investigation for running an especially sleazy black market ring.

And here’s where it gets interesting: The American writer of cheap cowboys-and-Indians shoot-’em-ups takes it upon himself to play sheriff, to clear his friend’s name and expose the corrupt international police force. Of particular interest to Holly is a report from an eyewitness to Harry’s death, who claims that the corpse was carried out of the street by three men, the third of whom remains unidentified. Martins starts asking around about this mysterious “third man,” but the more he talks to Lime’s grinning, unctuous lackeys, the more apparent it becomes that his roguish schoolchum had moved beyond knowing the best ways to cheat on an exam. It turns out that Harry Lime may have been a real bastard and may be better off dead.

Even 50 years past its initial release date, The Third Man retains its power to fascinate, chiefly because of the character of Holly Martins and the performance of Joseph Cotten, whose quiet manner and misguided chivalry lead him far out of his proper sphere. The film sparkles with memorable scenes of Cotten drawling marvelous Graham Greene dialogue to an assortment of distinct, colorful ne’er-do-wells. Then of course, there’s the bewitching Alida Valli as Lime’s smitten Czech lover Anna; and there’s Orson Welles, who...well, for those who still haven’t seen the movie, let’s just say that Welles plays the person that everyone’s looking for, and when he appears two-thirds of the way through the picture, he delivers a classic speech about the rewards of moral ambiguity that elevates The Third Man past its nail-biter origins.

That speech takes place aboard a Ferris wheel in the Russian quarter of Vienna, and of course the city itself is the film’s other great character. Divided into Russian, French, British, and American zones after the war, Vienna’s divided heart serves as the most appropriate backdrop for this story of people who abandon their principles for the sake of self-preservation. It’s often been written that film noir blossomed in postwar America because the horrors of Dresden, Omaha Beach, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima taught Hollywood filmmakers bitter lessons about man’s capacity for inhumanity. In The Third Man, Greene and Reed offer a British perspective, showing how having to grovel to survive eventually leads to folks stooping low just for fun and profit.

So we get a well-meaning American stumbling into a mess created by a fellow countryman, in consort with the dregs of Europe. Not for nothing does The Third Man end with a chase through the M.C. Escher-like sewers—the perfect place for a rat who doesn’t know up from down—and with the death of a man hard-bitten enough to claim that “the dead are happier dead.” That’s the theme that Hitchcock would explore over the next decade, in slick entertainments that would take Middle America by the hand and lead them gleefully on a tour of stained souls. But back in 1949, it was explored by poor Holly Martins, whose attempts to apply U.S.-made moral absolutes to an international morass had him spending the bulk of the movie chasing a shadow.

—Noel Murray

Truth or consequences

Close Up is the funniest and most accessible of the four films I’ve seen by Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director who’s shaping up as one of the movies’ modern-day masters. Four movies hardly makes me an expert: Although Kiarostami’s post-1990 films have been the first to reach an American audience beyond the festival circuit, he’s been making movies since 1970. But the first movie I saw by him, 1997’s Taste of Cherry, had a sense of life within and beyond the boundaries of the frame that made the worlds of most movies look narrow and half-imagined. The same is true of the amazing Close Up, which was made in 1990 but is just getting its American release.

“We can never get close to the truth except through lying,” Kiarostami once said. That sly, suggestive paradox rests at the heart of Close Up, a one-of-a-kind movie that turns the forms of drama and documentary into an elaborate hall of mirrors. The more distorted the reflection gets, the more truth the director sees. The movie takes off from a puzzling real-life court case in which a destitute man, Hossein Sabzian, was accused of defrauding the Ahankhahs, a well-to-do Tehran family. Sabzian had claimed to be Kiarostami’s colleague, the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; to maintain the ruse, he borrowed money from the family, scouted out their house for locations, and promised to use their sons as actors.

Some of Kiarostami’s movies use the shooting of his own previous films as a starting point; if this situation hadn’t existed, Kiarostami might well have invented it. And that’s just what the director does, in a sense, when he goes to the real-life participants—Sabzian, the Ahankhahs, the presiding judge—and asks permission to film the trial. The move suddenly makes him an active participant in the story. We see him negotiating with Sabzian, a sort of benign version of The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, who’s delighted to make the career move from fake director to real actor. (“Could you make a film about my suffering?” he asks the director hopefully.) We learn his strategy for filming the trial, with a camera for close-ups of the plaintiffs and defendant. We even overhear discussions about scheduling the trial to accommodate filming. But Kiarostami takes an additional step that leads the whole project into Lewis Carroll territory. He scripts out dramatic reenactments of the story—then hires the real-life participants to play themselves.

One of Kiarostami’s pet themes is the interaction between movies and life, and how the inadequacies of one at depicting the other form their own kind of truth. This approach hits delirious comic extremes in Close Up. Pressed into service as actors, the family members rebel against Kiarostami’s scripted take on the situation. The father complains that he was on to the fake Makhmalbaf all along, while his son argues the whole family wised up. (The mother just wants it on the record that her other son isn’t a lowly baker—he’s a bread manager.) When the director interviews a soldier early on, the man’s comrades line up stiffly in the background like models.

The intrusion of Kiarostami’s camera creates an unmistakable distortion in the world: The director is a one-man uncertainty principle. But even that distortion says something about the ways people behave when they think they’re being watched, and about the effect of media scrutiny. The Ahankhahs may be trying to convict Sabzian of fraud, but in Kiarostami’s funhouse construction, the only difference between fraud and acting is the presence of a movie camera. The biggest liars are the ones who deceive themselves that they can capture the unvarnished truth—reporters, documentarians. Sabzian tells the judge he couldn’t be a thief; he defines a thief as someone in disguise, who arrives in a borrowed car clutching a briefcase. The reporter following the story pulls up in a cab with an attaché case. “We are slaves of a mask hiding our true face,” goes the film’s stated credo. “If we free ourselves from this, the beauty of truth will be ours.” Who passes along this wisdom? Sabzian.

To confuse what’s real with realism even more, the courtroom footage is flat and washed-out compared to the vivid hues of Kiarostami’s reenactments. What’s funny, though, is how much reality seeps in around the corners of this construct. Kiarostami has a fluid, wandering style that searches around in the frame, alert to whatever possibilities arise. For something like this in American movies, you have to go back to Robert Altman’s early-’70s prime. As his camera explores the Ahankhahs’ neighborhood, with its walled-in homes, neat streets, and heaps of leaves and discarded aerosol cans, Kiarostami’s method allows for incidental details about life in contemporary Tehran, from the scarcity of jobs to attending different movie theaters based on the level of censorship. Everyone and everything has a story. The effect is like going to see an exhibit for one painting and getting sidetracked not just by the other paintings but also by the security guard and the guy out front asking directions.

As it turns out, Sabzian isn’t a would-be robber. He’s a movie lover who gets drunk on the power of the director’s role, in every sense of the word, and he’s a jobless man who finds out how much difference access to a camera makes in the way he’s treated. He tells the wise and bemused judge that he wanted to be “a director who is aware of people’s sufferings and failings...a director who is modest enough to mix with ordinary folk.” Such a director arrives in the piercingly humane sequence that ends Close Up: the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose reaction is a real surprise. But there’s another director whose presence is always in the background of this unforgettable movie, and who seems as surprised and delighted by its developments as his viewers. Close Up shows at Sarratt next Wednesday and Thursday.

—Jim Ridley

Reeling and rocking

This week, some 14 movies are opening at various movie theaters around town. For reviews of some of the most anticipated films—among them The Opportunist and Gimme Shelter—turn to our movie listings on p. 83. See the movie listings as well for updated reviews of Cecil B. DeMented and Kikujiro.


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