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Greene pastures

9 August 2006

2:45 PM

9 August 2006

2:45 PM

In a change to the scheduled programme, I will not be reviewing Lady in the Water (PG) this week because it simply doesn’t deserve 800 words of either praise or damnation. Actually, I will just give it a little review: it’s ridiculous and awful. Mr M. Night Shyamalan, you should be ashamed of yourself. There. Nor will I be reviewing Nacho Libre (12A), since it’s another madcap, high-octane comedy (Jack Black as a wrestling champ) and I feel that over the past few weeks we’ve covered the blockbuster territory quite extensively. I shall not review Monster House (PG) because my inner child is taking its annual break, and I would much rather not review Alpha Male (15), the British offering of the week, because sitting through it was more painful than sitting at my school desk through double physics followed by double chemistry.

No: it’s August, it’s hot out, and we shall be a little more contained. This week a film made 57 years ago is enjoying a  reissue as part of a Carol Reed retrospective at the National Film Theatre, and since it is still one of the best films ever made, let us treat ourselves and have another look at it. It is The Third Man.

Post-war Vienna. An American, Holly Martins, arrives to see an old friend named Harry Lime. Lime has offered an incentive — some sort of job — to come and visit, and so Martins pitches up with an overnight bag and a hopeful, open demeanour. Arriving at Lime’s address, Martins is told by the caretaker that he’s ten minutes too late: Lime’s friends have already left — with Lime’s coffin. Harry Lime, Martins is told, has been knocked down and killed by a car in front of his house.

Martins, with the bold curiosity of an American away from home, begins to ask a few questions. He soon finds that the scene of the accident is open to query — it starts to look more like the scene of a crime. He discovers that three men carried Lime’s body to the sidewalk, and only two gave evidence at the inquest. Who was the third? ‘He was quite ordinary. He might have been just anybody,’ says the caretaker. Martins is warned to stop interfering — ‘Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this’ — but he takes no notice.  

The plot is perfectly pitched between unfathomable and coherent: at first there are only questions without answers, and then gradually information is given away — but only by minute degrees. We are privilege to no more intelligence than Martins discovers, but the director Carol Reed, within the first few moments of the picture, signals to his audience that confusion and intrigue exist on a level beyond Martins’s immediate understanding. The caretaker, describing Lime’s death, says lightly, ‘He is already in hell,’ but as he says it he points to the ceiling. Adding, ‘Or in heaven,’ he points to the floor. Then, within a few minutes, a drunk Martins says confusedly to Major Calloway, ‘I guess nobody knew Harry like he did…like I did.’ By these remarks, and many more like them, we are awakened to deception.

Thus, while Martins stumbles about believing everything he is told, we know better than to trust these sharp-faced Europeans. Our sense of superiority, however, is repeatedly undermined by unexpected developments in the story (and at one point by an elaborate ‘kidnapping’ joke). Martins may not be Sherlock Holmes — back home, he writes cowboy stories — but he is admirably dogged and having at first been treated as an inconvenient pest, he soon becomes a nuisance, and finally a threat. He is similarly transformed for the audience, from a clown into a hero.

The character about whom our feelings are most complicated is of course Harry Lime himself. In this respect our views mirror those of Holly Martins, who worships Lime but has plainly been bullied and outsmarted by him in the past. We learn from Calloway that Lime is despicable, but we are reluctant to believe it. We learn from Lime’s grief-stricken girlfriend that he is easy to fall in love with, and hard to defect from. When we meet Lime, our loyalties are even further confused: a brilliant Orson Welles switches smoothly between charm and menace until we are defeated. We make uncertain, feeble judges until the final few moments, when the sewer rat is plainly revealed and acted upon.

To watch The Third Man, which I have seen before but not for many years, was like drinking a glass of cold mineral water after six weeks of nothing but fizzy pop. There is not a wasted frame, a superfluous word, a glance without significance. Everyone has achieved their absolute best: the acting is superb (Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles), the photography (Robert Krasker) is sublime, the dialogue (Graham Greene) is economic, humorous, precise. A pure pleasure.

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