Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
What Sucks, What’s Still Relevant, and What is up with Peter Bogdanovich’s Ascots?
Black and white films from the 1930s and 40s, the "Golden Age of Hollywood" … oh how they make us youngish movie-lovers feel guilty for not watching them. How many times have you gritted your teeth, popped in an old black and white “masterpiece” in the name of broadening yourself, only to be bored to tears by the molasses-like plot development, paper-thin caricatures, and hammy, pre-Method (over)acting? How often have you rolled your eyes when you read one of your elders castigating young people today for not properly appreciating or even watching their cinematic heritage. Fed up, you (if you’re like me) shrug off your “duty” to come to grips with the past and bundle off toward the multiplex.
And yet … the guilt remains. There’s something charming about those old films. And they are part of the evolution of the art form. And hey, you liked Casablanca and Citizen Kane. But how to separate the wheat from the chaff? Which ones are entertaining on their own? Which ones are worth suffering through to “appreciate” their “historical significance”? Why won’t somebody do this for us!
Well fret no longer. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. That’s what this column is. Much like my running column about American movies in the 70s , I’m going to pick off films from the Golden Age of Hollywood and tell you what’s what with them. An honest opinion from someone who’s not a baby boom-aged lifetime film critic at your lame local paper, or a stuffy, tone-deaf “film history professor” writing to secure tenureship, clueless about how people these days actually experience and consume media. I’ll be understanding that these were made in a much different time and place and under very strict conditions, but I’m going to be honest when I’m bored, tell you when some “masterpiece” is ridiculously over-rated…and hopefully dig up some gems that remain cool today.
The Third Man
Directed by Carol Reed, Written by Graham Greene
Starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles
Reputation: A cynical masterpiece about how we don’t want to believe that many of the world’s great fortunes are built by ambitious men profiting from human misery.
How it Holds Up: Turns out that The Third Man really is a cynical masterpiece about how we don’t want to believe that many of the world’s great fortunes are built by ambitious men profiting from human misery. It’s pretty amazing at how tight this film is even when watched today. The biggest share of the credit, I think, should go to the writer of the film…Graham fucking Greene. It’s a killer story…An American played by Joseph Cotten (most famous for this film and his role as Charles Kane’s best friend Leland in Citizen Kane) shows up in post-war Vienna (divided into four sections, each ruled by one of the victorious Allies…shades of Casablanca here) at the invitation of his childhood friend Harry Lime. He arrives to find out that Lime died the day before he arrived in a car accident. As Cotten starts to ask questions about his friend’s death, he starts to suspect there’s something fishy about Lime’s “death.” None of the accounts of the car accident matches up. A British police officer shows up and tells Cotten that his old friend was actually a rather notorious gangster in Vienna, who made a fortune selling watered-down penicillin to post-war hospitals desperate for supplies…much to the misfortune of the people who died or were disfigured as a result of the bad penicillin. As Cotten digs deeper, he discovers that maybe the policeman is right about his old friend, and that maybe his old friend isn’t so dead after all.
Orson Welles famously shows up late in the movie as the very-much-alive Harry Lime, and every scene with him in it is (rightly) considered classic. Welles takes Cotten up on a Ferris wheel where Cotten confronts Welles about his immoral profiteering. Welles offers to cut Cotten in on the business. He tells him to look at the tiny shapes of the humans below. If someone offered you $5,000 for every shape that stopped moving…would you really say no?
The performances by the great straight man Cotten and the immortal, still baby-faced Welles, of course, are also part of the magic of what makes this film so special. Welles gets one of the all-time best parts in Harry Lime. He’s a character that all of the other characters spend the first hour of the movie talking about, building him up to mythic status, so when he finally shows up, he gets to steal the movie (see: Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, Kevin Spacey -as-Keyzer Soze in The Usual Suspects, Sir Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast).
The rest of the credit goes to director Carol Reed and musician Anton Karas for establishing the cynical, mysterious atmosphere of the film. Reed works in the mildly subjective directing style of the great Noir directors, getting the most out of the shadows that look so great in black and white. Karas adds an unforgettably bittersweet Zither score that tells you that everything these characters do—moral or immoral—has about as much importance in the long run as the proverbial ants Lime asks Cotten to consider.
Really Dated By: Not much, really. There’s even a large amount of un-subtitled German in the movie as Cotten tries to navigate in a city where he doesn’t speak the language, something studio movies probably wouldn’t even dare today.
So what dates it? Um…all the men wear suits all the time. And it’s in black and white, I guess.
DVD Bonuses: One of the greatest things about watching Golden Age movies is the unintentional comedy of the various Introductions they pack onto the discs. The demographic they seem to be tailored to are people who 1) are over 60 and 2) know next to nothing about movies. The single most annoying/amusing thing that grows out of this is how they pick film “scholars” and “experts” who toe Great Canon of American Film party line without the least hint of self-consciousness. The kind of people who take the AFI Top 100 Films list seriously, and take everything clueless middle aged hacks like David Thompson say as gospel.
The Third Man, like a lot of Golden Age discs, prominently features the king of all American Canon party-line hacks…director, professional suck-up and gadfly, and Sopranos cast member Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich deserves an article all his own, but in a thumbnail, he went from being a critic to a very well-regarded director in the 70s (The Last Picture Show being his first and best movie), famously flamed out in typical 70s fashion by falling pretty to an enormous ego fueled by affairs with starlets (Cybil Shepherd in this caser) and coke (I’m (perhaps libeliously) assuming), further fueled his ego by befriending much older, fading Golden Age icons like Orson Welles and lapping up all their revisionist stories from their golden years, and now directs low-rent movies at a fraction of the artistic value he used to and (presumably) pays the mortgage by agreeing to appear in the extras of every Golden Age DVD that asks him to.
On these DVDs, Bogdanovich is like some kind of very lifelike robot that automatically spouts out every single cliché from film history class and mainstream criticism any time you point a camera at him. And he doesn’t disappoint on The Third Man. He claims that The Third Man is probably the “only great film not made by an auteur,” (meaning not the work of a single writer-director), which makes perfect sense, unless you count Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, Fight Club, the collected films of Martin Scorsese, every single film in the top 10 of AFI’s Top 100 list, and probably 95% of what are considered the greatest films by movie-lovers out there.
This is a rare Bogdanovich appearance that should be treasured—it might be the only time he credits the work a writer (who, after all, makes up the entire story, every line of dialogue, and describes everything that happens in the movie before the camera rolls)…probably because the writer of The Third Man was a little known scribe by the name of Graham Greene. Hey, Bogdanovich has probably seen Greene's name in The New Yorker: he must be important. “Auteur Theory” has been discredited and ridiculed as a ridiculous theory that French critics-turned-directors made up to draw attention to themselves for well over thirty years—and yet here’s Bogdanovich, playing the role of the unassailable expert, talking about it like it’s accepted gospel by people “who know what they’re talking about.”
There’ll be plenty of time to ridicule Bogdanovich in future movies featured on this site (since he turns up on so many of these DVDs, whore that he is), but I can’t pass up mentioning that he also tells us an anecdote about how Orson told him (did I mention that Bodgonavich is also probably the most famous name-dropper in Hollywood history?) that his (“Orson’s”) performance is so good in The Third Man because it was in black and white. Orson told Bogdanovich that all great performances are in black and white. Bogdanovich emerges from this reverie and asserts to the camera that Orson was right… there have been no great film performances in color.
Buy, Rent, or Skip? Rent.
Coming Soon: The Lady from Shanghai, or The Lady from Shit Sandwich?