Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Third Man

A film from that golden era of English films, whether coming from Hollywood or Britain, the 1940s, when films dared to be grey, realistic and yet fogged in a halo of street lamps, Carol Reed's The Third Man boldly tries things which few films have done throughout the history of cinema, until today. A music that grows on your nerves rather than forming a complementary to the plot; a key man of the plot being introduced when you had almost forgotten of him (and what an introduction!); and some never-to-be forgotten dialogues that give the film a human relevance much beyond what its film noir look would have done so: these are things that are hardly done nowadays, when directors claim to be "experimental," let alone back then in that era when women often had nothing to do except being the love interest. Alida Valli also doesn't have to do more than that, but in walking off from the blundering positive protagonist, Joseph Cotten, she makes a statement to rival that made by Maj-Britt Nilsson in the Swedish film Sommarlek, interestingly from the same period: the statement that a nearly similar film, at least as far as the atmospherics are concerned, George Cukor's Gaslight, failed to make, in spite of a remarkable performance by the talent of Ingrid Bergman.

Apart from the music, the film's strengths lie in its unconventional cinematography but conventional editing, and actors very well suited to their parts except Welles to a large extent and Valli to a certain extent. However, since Welles' role is primarily that of bringing a shock value at points in the film, it does not matter that much; it is the ensemble of the self-pitying but still-searching Joseph Cotten and the very internationally diversified world around him in the post-War Vienna that form the crux of the cast and the strength of the film. Where crisp cinematography, Valli's eyes, and Cotten's performance are already ruling the roost, it's a feat to even be noticeable: Austrian actress Hedwig Bleibtreu rather manages to illuminate the whole film, in the matter of hardly minutes, with that minor role of the landlady of Valli she has. Not only that, but in the context of the post-Welles film, she - more than any gangrened patients in the hospital, who should've been shown by the camera (this is one major flaw of the film; I don't know if it was due to any production code issues or merely that fine detail of avoiding hurting people's sensibilities) - it is she who represents one of those obscure "dots," which hardly matter in the scheme of things. While Raskolnikov's old lady might have been portrayed as mean and not in a flattering way, here is another such obscure dot, waiting to be exterminated: but this time this dot is brimful with life. Life not in the sense of doing great things, rushing from one city to another, or unbounded laughter or sex; but life in that ultimate sense of living, that love for living which permeates so many of us, which only gives meaning to everything we do.

A lot has been said of that brave shot at the end of the film, and even after having watched hundreds and hundreds of films, I, too, find it a really brave shot: I hadn't expected it at all. Only Lean's entry for Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia rivals it, but I would say even that wasn't as brave a shot as this one is: to set such a shot at the climax of the film, with around 2 mins of screen time without wavering from that simple walk that rejects the pretender, could not just be termed brave, but could have been called visionary, had the later filmmakers learnt anything.

Talking of other things, Trevor Howard gives a fine performance, as does the Austrian actor Ernst Deutsch in a vampirish-looking role. The accent of Bernard Lee makes a delightful addition to the film. And the end of Welles is probably even more remarkable than the entry of Welles in the film: clutching and grasping. For? Money? Or this time, life? Salvation? Or trying to escape from being a once-upon dot?

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