Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Third Man

Whenever and however I finally pack it in—the smart money’s on decapitation by the side mirror of a passing city bus, by the way—can I have The Third Man played at my funeral in lieu of a eulogy? No, it doesn’t sum up my life in any meaningful way. I never smuggled penicillin in post-war Vienna, wrote dime-store westerns nor, save for several magical weeks one long-lost summer, played female lead in a Germanic powdered-wig farce.

But is there any greater film about the art of saying—or not saying—goodbye? How many tickets out of town do you need before you finally leave? How many times must you bury your best friend before he finally stays dead? Is there really any such thing as a foolproof coffin? Somehow, the dead always find a way to get out and sneak back into our lives. Spiritually, The Third Man is the ancestor of every zombie film ever made.

The dead may rise, but as Orson Welles via Harry Lime says, they were probably happier dead anyway. And looking at the scarred Vienna captured so masterfully by Carol Reed, he might be right. You might not be able to leave once you arrive—as Harry’s friend Holly so comically discovers—but you certainly wouldn’t want to return once you escaped, whether it be by train, plane, or hearse. This city is a broken place, the kind of place where morality is a form of betrayal and even the children are willing to sell you out to the lynch mob. It’s a paranoid place, enlivened only by the occasional black comedy of Graham Greene’s hardboiled dialogue, which is so flinty it strikes sparks (“You were born to be murdered,” one character quips, summing up the general mood quite nicely). Yet somewhere between the canted angles and the zither score—jaunty, romantic and entirely sinister—a strange alchemy takes place. Having your heart crushed by this film again and again is an altogether intoxicating experience.

Just look into those eyes and try to resist. Any pair of eyes will do, for this is a film of faces. There are the famous ones, of course: Holly’s face (Joseph Cotton), weary and stupefied at the discovery of his friend’s crimes; or Anna’s (Valli), buried in her hands, tears rolling down her cheek as she clutches at the ghost in her heart. And when the shadows peel back, Harry’s face, carrying that simple, bemused smile at all of this misery. But there are also the faces of the people of Vienna, wizened and worn by years of war and hunger and terror. Reed returns to these faces repeatedly, punctuating scenes with their accusing eyes—the conscience of the film. Sad faces. Angry faces. Confused, numbed, stricken faces. “Look at yourself,” Anna says to Holly, “They have a name for faces like that.”

Er, is it Harry? At one point, Anna accidentally refers to Holly by his missing friend’s name, excusing her mistake with another insult. “Holly—what a silly name.” Not that Holly fares any better with names, constantly referring to the British officer Halloway as Hallohan (“I’m not Irish,” the man sniffs in reply). Is it a sign of the fundamental dishonesty of the place that no one seems able to master the simple act of direct reference? Or is the fact that no one seems to have bothered to learn any else’s name merely another side effect of the carelessness with which these people treat each other? If I don’t care whether you live or die, do I really care however the hell you pronounce “Winkel”?

That callousness informs the film from Harry’s rationalization of his crimes right down to that immortal final shot where Anna refuses to grant Holly the small comfort of acknowledgement, never mind forgiveness. She just walks down a lane that seemingly stretches into infinity, finally stepping out of sight behind the camera, where a better—if surely less beautiful—world must exist. She says not a word, allowing the headless trees and falling leaves to speak for her. But what use is goodbye? That’s why this film would serve as such a fine eulogy. When the time comes to truly part, irrevocably and eternally separate, the word means nothing. So no goodbyes, please. Give me a good movie and that’ll be enough. Just don’t forget to seal that coffin tight.

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