Friday, September 22, 2023

The Third Man (1949)

According to the British Film Institute, The Third Man is one of the “five essential British film noirs.” Its website also notes that The Third Man is often “voted the best British film.” The screenplay by British novelist Graham Greene was based on the story that he wrote specifically to be used for the film (more about this later). It is a film noir that I think could convince anyone who says that they don’t like classic and/or black-and-white films to change their minds—it really is that good. And all that makes it a good choice for the Tenth Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon hosted by Terry Canote at his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts.

The film is introduced by a voice-over narrator. He could be one of Harry Lime’s friends and fellow black marketeer. The narrator explains that he came to Vienna after World War II, and he implies that he is a professional black marketeer: “Course, a situation like that does tempt amateurs but, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional,” this said over a shot of a body floating presumably in the Danube River. The narrator also explains a little bit about the situation in Vienna: how all the Allied forces (United States, England, France, and Russia) were in charge of governing what is now an occupied city. And he introduces the arrival of Holly Martins, who is planning to stay with his childhood friend Harry Lime.

See the credits for more about the narration at the start of the film; the DVD version from the Criterion Collection that I watched included the version narrated by Carol Reed.

Once the introduction is over, the narrative begins with American Holly Martins’s arrival in postwar Vienna. He has been invited to the city by Harry Lime. Martins writes pulp Westerns, but he doesn’t make enough money at it, so Lime’s proposal that he come to Vienna and write about the situation there sounds promising. When he arrives at the front door of Harry Lime’s apartment, he is told by Karl, the building’s porter, that Lime is dead. In fact, Martins just missed the coffin, which is heading to the cemetery for burial. Martins rushes to the cemetery in disbelief. At the gravesite, he meets British Major Calloway, who tells him that Lime is better off dead because he was facing serious criminal charges. Martins scoffs at this and decides to prove Major Calloway wrong by finding the real criminal. Martins’s subsequent (mis)adventures in Vienna are the basis for the film’s plot.

(This article about The Third Man contains spoilers.)

The Third Man is much more than a whodunit or a postwar crime story. It has a fantastic soundtrack involving a Viennese musician, Anton Karas, playing his zither, and the effect is a perfect complement to the action on-screen. At the time the film was being produced, the director Carol Reed didn’t know what a zither was, and it is quite possible many people outside Austria didn’t either. He saw a musician playing the instrument in a café and decided that both were perfect for the soundtrack. The music evokes a whimsical quality that manages to underscore, not detract from, the action. By the end of the film, after almost two hours of zither music, it begins to grate on the nerves, if I’m honest. But maybe that’s the point: Holly Martins’s adoration of Harry Lime is starting to grate on Martins’s nerves!

In spite of the numerous noir elements (betrayal, murder many times over, chiaroscuro lighting, tilted camera angles, postwar angst and rubble), the film has several humorous moments. For example, Crabbin of the British Cultural Center, the propaganda arm of the British government in Vienna, mistakes Martins for another British novelist. Crabbin corrals Martins into giving a talk on the modern novel, but Martins isn’t prepared for an intellectual discussion about James Joyce and the stream of consciousness as a writing technique. Other examples include the fact that Harry Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, is still in love with Harry; she can never remember Holly’s name and calls him Harry throughout, much to Martins’s frustration. (He imagines instead that he will be able to seduce Schmidt eventually.) When Karl, the porter in Harry Lime’s apartment building is murdered, Hansl, a boy of about five years old and the son of one of Lime’s neighbors, points the finger at Holly Martins when he arrives on the scene with Anna Schmidt. Hansl leads the charge when the neighbors pursue Martins and Schmidt. Major Calloway has several humorous lines in his dealings with Martins. He describes him as a man easy to murder, and he wants him out of Vienna so that he is not responsible for Martins’s death.

When Holly Martins learns that Harry Lime is actually alive, he arranges a meeting with him at Prater Park. The meeting is tense: Martins worries about Lime’s possible culpability and betrayal; Lime worries that Martins has talked to the police about his black market activities. But neither is ready to distrust the other one completely, not yet anyway. In this scene, Harry Lime delivers some of his most famous lines: “. . . In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. [slight pause] So long, Holly.” Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, apparently added the line about the cuckoo clock. It adds a humorous note and thus relieves a little of the tension between Lime and Martins.

In the postwar period, the comparison between Swiss democracy and Italy under the Borgias probably sounded incongruous, as Lime intended. But it sounds a little less incongruous in 2023 after more has come to light about the secrecy and corruption in the Swiss banking system. (Click here for some information about Swiss banking practices at Wikipedia.)

The Third Man was shot on location in Vienna amid the rubble of World War II and in the underground sewer system, where Harry Lime maneuvers his way from one part of the occupied city to another. It’s another example of a postwar rubble film, but it’s easy to forget that Vienna is in ruins while watching Holly Martins trying to prove British Major Calloway wrong about Lime; it’s so easy to get caught up in the story and lose sight of the bombed-out buildings and the postwar poverty and desperation.

I’ve written articles about other rubble films. Click on each film title in the list below to read them.

The Search (1948)

Berlin Express (1948)

The Murderers Are Among Us (1946)

These three films are just a few examples of many rubble films.

As I mentioned, British novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, which was based on a story he wrote specifically to be used as the basis for the film. In the preface to the novel, Greene explains his reasoning for writing the story as a work of fiction first and how changes between the written word and the film came about. It’s an interesting read if you are anything like me: someone who enjoys both literature and film. For something that was never intended to be published in written form, the novel is quite an accomplishment, and it provides some background for the characters. The novel is told from Major Calloway’s point of view (he is a colonel in the novel). Throughout the novel, he reviews the police files about Harry Lime and his interviews with Holly Martins (Rollo Martins and a British citizen in the novel). He tells readers what he knows from his own investigation.

But it was Major Calloway’s speech to readers at the end of the novel that started me thinking. In that speech, he describes Martins as follows: “He was a very bad shot and a very bad judge of character . . .” (page 157). I started to wonder how Martins managed to be such a bad shot during wartime. Wasn’t he conscripted and taught to shoot during military training? Or was he hesitant about shooting Harry Lime in the end because he still felt some nostalgia for their friendship? Graham Greene never says.

During the war, Harry Lime probably went away without leave (AWOL)—if he was conscripted at all. But giving what I know about World War II military service and trying to avoid it, I would assume that Lime was drafted and just decided to go AWOL. And if he were successful at avoiding being caught by the military police (because they made it a point to catch all dodgers and apparently were very, very good at it), he probably wouldn’t have had much choice but to go into the wartime black market. Greene never explains this part of Lime’s background, and it was never addressed in either the film or the novel for him or for Holly Martins.

I saw the film several times and read the novel before I wondered at all about Holly Martins’s and Harry Lime’s backstories. I mention these points only because they gave me a new appreciation for the film’s story: I cannot call them flaws because I never would have noticed them without reading the novel. The Third Man deserves all its accolades. It’s a great story and a black-and-white classic.

This article about The Third Man is my entry for the Tenth Annual Rule, Britannnia Blogathon, hosted by Terry at his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts. Click here for a day-by-day list of links to their blogs. The list is updated each day of the blogathon, from September 22 to 24.

September 2, 1949, release date    Directed by Carol Reed    Screenplay by Graham Greene    Based on a story by Graham Greene    Music by Anton Karas    Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter    Cinematography by Robert Krasker

Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins    Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt    Orson Welles as Harry Lime    Trevor Howard as Major Calloway    Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine    Wilfrid Hyde-White as Crabbin    Erich Ponto as Dr. Winkel    Ernst Deutsch as “Baron” Kurtz    Siegfried Breuer as Popescu    Paul Hörbiger as Karl, Lime’s apartment porter    Hedwig Bleibtreu as Anna’s landlady    Robert Brown as British military police officer in sewer chase    Alexis Chesnakov as Brodsky    Herbert Halbik as Hansl    Paul Hardtmuth as the hall porter at Hotel Sacher    Geoffrey Keen as British military police officer    Eric Pohlmann as waiter at Smolka’s    Annie Rosar as the porter’s wife    Joseph Cotten as the narrator (pre-1999 U.S. version)    Carol Reed as the narrator (pre-1999 UK and all post-1999 versions)

Distributed by British Lion Film Corporation (United Kingdom), Selznick Releasing Organizations (United States)    Produced by London Films

Friday, September 1, 2023

Le boiteux (Baby Blues) (1999)

At one point in Le boiteux, Lieutenant Jacques Déveure tells his girlfriend, “I don’t know what’s in my heart, Louisa.” Louisa has already accused Déveure of being unable to commit to her because he is obsessed with Albertin, a criminal who shot him in the ankle three years earlier, giving him a permanent limp (and hence the title of the film in French; the title in English is not a direct translation). By this point in the film, Louisa is exasperated with Déveure. She tells him, “I’m supposed to know, am I? Is that it? I’m supposed to know. [pause] I get the impression that it’s not a pretty sight, inside that heart of yours.”

But the fact is that Lieutenant Jacques Déveure is one of the most trustworthy characters in the film, as is Louisa and Granier, Déveure’s partner on the police force. Déveure and Granier are investigating the death of an infant, and they uncover layers of corruption that seem to involve everyone in the small fictitious town in the southwest of France, where the infant’s body is found.

The skeletal remains of an infant are discovered in the basement of an apartment house by a worker installing new heat pipes. Lieutenant Jacques Déveure and his partner Granier are assigned to the investigation. It’s the first serious case for Déveure since his on-the-job injury three years earlier, when Albertin shot him in the ankle. Déveure now walks with a brace on his leg, a cane, and a limp. To say that he is bitter is an understatement.

Viewers see the extended flashback of this incident involving Lieutenant Déveure’s injury during the opening credits. This flashback is repeated in bits and pieces throughout the film to show how much Déveure has been haunted by this injury and how much it has affected his outlook on life. Sometimes his own reflection in his bathroom mirror triggers these recollections. Coming face to face with his partner Granier’s use of violence to stop a murderous suspect also prompts these flashbacks. In both these flashback instances, it is Albertin’s face specifically that comes to Déveure’s mind, which perhaps shows him—and viewers—that he, his partner, and Albertin may be very similar after all. Their reasons for doing what they do may be the only thing that sets them apart.

(This article about Le boiteux contains spoilers.)

Déveure and Granier start asking questions, first of Blandine and Patrick Piancet, the tenants of the building where the infant’s skeleton is found. Patrick Piancet is the son of the town’s mayor, Lucien Piancet. Lucien Piancet managed to ensnare many people in his web of corruption and murder over several years because of his connection to the owner of a construction company: Mr. Callero. The two are the source of all the misery and despair; they don’t care about family, friends, or strangers, only about making money and their own amusement. Others in town were trapped either unwittingly or because they themselves had or have something to hide.

Blandine Piancet isn’t taken very seriously by any of the other characters in the film, not at first. But she is a victim of the corruption in town. Other characters call her crazy, which only makes it easier for her to be taken less and less seriously—until she reaches a breaking point, and by then it’s too late. As Déveure and Granier’s investigation proceeds, they find that some of the people calling Blandine unstable aren’t so stable themselves. They justify their actions by blaming others or putting their own emotions above all else. Unfortunately for Blandine, she gets most of the blame, although her actions are the least offensive and the least criminal.

Le boiteux is a 1999 made-for-French-television film that I doubt would ever be shown on broadcast television in the United States, not without cutting the sex scene between Déveure and his girlfriend Louisa. The macabre humor about keeping a corpse in a refrigerator where it was found and where it would be most practical might be cut, too. I found the film because I have recently become a fan of the film’s star, Vincent Winterhalter, and because my public library system happened to have a copy of the DVD. (Winterhalter has starred in several films that are part of the Murder In . . . series in France. Highly recommended but not because they are noir, unfortunately; they are fun police procedurals that explore different locations in France.)

The first time that I saw Le boiteux, I wasn’t so sure that it was noir. The music score, and the film’s theme music specifically, is very upbeat. The film was shot on location in “Bordeaux, Bourg sur Gironde, et Blanquefort” according to the closing credits. These are small cities in southwestern France, with relatively warm weather and, as shown in the film, plenty of local color. But evil can happen anywhere, and that’s definitely the case in Le boiteux. In fact, “small” may mean that evil is easier to pursue because it’s easier to know everyone’s business and their weaknesses. It’s a theme that is explored in some U.S. films noir, for example, Kansas City Confidential (1952) and The Phenix City Story (1955). Two characters in Le boiteux, Lucien Piancet and Callero, take advantage of their small-town circumstances and everyone living there.

Lieutenant Déveure, his partner Granier, and the rest of the police force do the best they can with limited resources and limited cooperation. Déveure’s moments of self-doubt, doubt about his work, and his hesitation about commitment to his girlfriend Louisa seem to make him stronger as he faces these problems throughout the story. The murder case is solved, but it is Déveure’s character arc that is the most satisfying part of the narrative.

January 3, 1999, broadcast date    Directed by Paule Zadjermann    Screenplay by Paule Zadjermann, Pascale Basset-Chercot    Based on the novel Baby-blues by Pascale Basset-Chercot    Music by Jean-Claude Vannier    Edited by Jean-Baptiste de Battista    Cinematography by Gérard de Battista

Vincent Winterhalter as Lieutenant Jacques Déveure    François Berléand as Granier    Audrey Tautou as Blandine Piancet    Brigitte Roüan as Véronique Troney    Laura del Sol as Louisa    Frédéric Gorny as Patrick Piancet    Jean-Marie Frin as Lucien Piancet    Stéphane Jobert as Callero    Stéphane Olivié Bisson as Dr. Gallot    Nicolas Silberg as Commissioner Chassagne    Alban Guitteny as Adjutant Berchet    Julie-Marie Parmentier as Jasmine Troney    Philippe de Brugada as Pinto    Philippe Laudenbach as Dr. Joseph Brant    Renée Courty as Madame Vannier    Laurent Olmedo as Albertin    Valérie Ancel as the mayor’s secretary

Produced by Cinétévé-France 3 Production Sud-Ouest    Broadcast by France 3