Night and Day Film Noir Series Month Four: Carol Reed’s The Third Man

Courtesy of MAP Productions

Continuing our ongoing conversation with Brandon Ryan, the Artistic Director of Man Along Productions, half of the podcast team behind The Thrilling Adventures of Brandon and Shane which he co-hosts with Shane Regan, and the curator behind Central Cinema’s Night and Day: Classic and Modern Film Noir series, wherein we talk the copious trivia and ephemera in, about and around film noir classics in general. The conversation thus far has covered Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Rian Johnson’s Brick.

This week, Ryan and the Star’s José Amador effuse all over Carol Reed’s production of Graham Greene’s script The Third Man, briefly delve into the film’s production history and somehow find themselves in the middle of discussing the worlds of Joss Whedon, the Terminator movies, the Rambo movies, and Mutiny on the Bounty.

Seattle Star: So many places we could possibly go with The Third Man…Let’s start with one of the more iconic, in a film filled with iconic elements: Anton Karas’ zither theme, do you know how that came about?

BR: Oh yah, the theme’s quite infectious. Anton Karas was just entertaining in a Viennese wine bar when Director Carol Reed happened upon him, and chose him to compose the musical score for the film. He ended up playing music for a few other films and project, most notably The Third Man tv show, the radio theater extension, The Adventures of Harry Lime, and Orson Welles’ quasi-related Mr. Arkadin. Karas couldn’t even read or write music at the time, but man, he could play the heck out of that zither. The warm happy glow that comes from his score is a wonderful juxtaposition to the dark burnt out aftermath of a post-WWII Vienna. It’s frickin’ amazing.

SStar: What’s funny to me is that his score led to a mini-zither craze immediately afterward, as these things are bound to do. There’s also something a bit world-weary about the score–despite the awfulness of the scenario, the world moves on as best as possible.

Vienna was truly in the midst of its reconstruction after the war, and it’s remarkable how the black and white cinematography still makes it look worldly and romantic. There’s a great feature about the city and where it was at the time of shooting in the Criterion box set.

BR: Interesting. I’ve only seen the special feature that has Anton Karas playing the Zither all awesome like. I’ve yet to delve into the other Criterion special features. I keep upgrading DVDs that include way more special features, but I hardly ever watch them. Arg.

One of my favorite uses of forced audience manipulation in the movie is the fact that Orson’s character Harry Lime is not in the film all that much. But, because the other characters are constantly referring to him before we even see him during the first half of the film, it builds him up into this mythical character–a being of remarkable presence. It also helps that Orson is super charming and does wonders with his tiny supporting role.

SStar: Trying to remember if it took some convincing to get him in the movie, I think I recall his resisting it for a while.

BR: From what my brain knows, there was never a hassle with trying to get Orson in the film. It was one of the many paycheck films that he took so he could finance his Mercury Theatre and Shakespearean film projects. Orson ended up being pissed because he decided to take a salary for The Third Man instead of a percentage of the gross. The film ended up being a huge successs, so he missed out on all kinds of extra money, which is a big deal for a guy who basically had to hustle during his whole career.

SStar: Hey, while we’re here, let me take a detour to pimp the project that the guys at the Paradise are bringing to West of Lenin in December, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles…I caught it in Port Townsend, great script and great performance.

BR: Holy sweet. I’m totally gonna see the crap out of that.

SStar: Anyway, we’ve had this conversation many times before, in which I state that The Third Man is likely my favorite noir film, if such a thing exists.

But using your criteria: camera angles and shots, and distinct and unique shot composition, check. An everyman protagonist? Check, Joseph motherfucking Cotten, as Holly Martins, is the shit. What was his line? “I’m just a dumb old writer who falls in love with girls easily”…something like that, you end up falling for the guy right there and then. Alida Valli as the femme fatale is simply perfect in the role. The surreal aspect in most noir that we both dig on isn’t really an accentuated aspect of the film–at least not more than necessary, because the entire scenario in Vienna after WWII is pretty damn surreal already. There’s so many different and subtle touches in the film. Oh, and it’s pretty damn funny. Given these qualities, and the trouble Reed had in securing funding from its international production team, it’s a miracle the film exists at all.

BR: Yeah, this may be one of the most perfect examples of noir in all of its glory. It does hit all of the elements on the noir checklist. And more so, like the genesis for noir itself, the film is a complete product of the times. The prospect of war profiteering in the burnt out ruins of a post-war city is an important part of the background. The hustling and grifting that comes about when a new bout of economic turmoil is introduced into a country’s financial ecosystem. It’s the detritus of the war that is really reflected in this film. It’s reflected in all of the extras and very minor side characters, which really makes this film remarkable.

SStar: What’s your take on the cast?

BR: I frickin’ adore everyone in this film. Joey Cotten, ya. I’m a huge fan of that guy. What a perfect represenation of the everyday average American. The whole film is about balance. Funny that the use of the Dutch camera angle keeps every shot off kilter. Balance and justification, trying to a restore the city, right the wrongs of our friends, solve a mystery. Ironically, it’s an American who is set up for the task. It starts out like a 40’s propaganda film where “America saves the day” and all hope in the world is restored; but, the film is made by an artist who knows those tropes and plays along with them, while simultaneously subverting the obvious flaws in them and turns them into gold.

And darn that Orson, he’s just amazing. Watching his cuckoo clock speech is an entire lesson in acting. With you and I both being cat lovers, how awesome was his intro by way of that black kitty? Super awesome!

SStar: I love the irony of having an American sent in to balance out the damage caused by an other American, a profiteering one at that–trés relevant, non? I think that is what’s behind the stir the script created with some of the personnel at the American studio involved. Here’s America, flush with victory in a war against “evil.” The last thing the public would want to see, at least in the mind of a typical Hollywood hack, is Americans being made out to be the bad guy. Though, it must be said that David O. Selznick, the American co-producer, did have a hand in crafting several impact-ful moments in the film.

BR: True to all the above American-hero noise that you’re talking about. It reminds me of all those Warner Brothers movies that were being pumped out during the last few WWII years. Each of them were basically recruitment propaganda to get men to enlist. Very strange motivations behind a lot of them.

SStar: Strange in what way?

BR: The overwhelming sense of American Pride. It’s just an odd thing to see, given the context that 70 years of hindsight we’ve gained. We had Hollywood working at a national level making films to help promote war. Just an interesting way of staring through the looking glass. That sort of mentality just wouldn’t work today.

SStar: We are alot more cynical these days, true. Although I would argue that a lot of the reactionary action movies of the 80s came close. If you remove First Blood from the Rambo series, you’d find some pretty heavy pro-war propaganda.

BR: Holy flip! I never realized that Trevor Howard played Major Calloway! I’ve only known him from Mutiny on the Bounty. How fascinating. Actually, it’s kind of tearing my brain apart. He was such a bastard in Bounty, that it’s somewhat difficult to separate him from that film and accept that he is the cool guy in The Third Man. Crazy sauce!

SStar: Major Calloway is the fan of Holly Martins’ books, right?

BR: Yep. That’s the guy.

SStar: I’ve never seen Mutiny, I should get on that eventually.

BR: Mutiny is quite a solid li’l film. A lot of flak was given to Marlon Brando at the time for the film careening out of control. Most of that was the studio making a scapegoat out of his exaggerated prima donna escapades, though. But, it is a very enjoyable flick and Brando is wonderful in it.

SStar: Let’s wrap this puppy up with a listing of notable and favorite sequences, without giving anything away. We’ve mentioned the Ferris Wheel scene, the black cat, anything else you’d like to mention?

BR: The balls on that last shot are flippen’ amazing. To hold that moment for as long as he did is just brilliant. The juxtaposition with that loud little boy who keeps yelling “Papa!” while incriminating ol’ Joey Cotton is a sweet moment. So kinetic and tense. To have it be underplayed with the innocence of that li’l boy, it’s pretty sweet.

SStar: I want to highlight the bit inside the Viennese sewers, the location of which was chosen specifically because smugglers would use them before, during and after the war. The shadow play in that scene is fun as hell; the added verisimilitude is icing on the cake.

BR: The comic relief of the book club moments sprinkled throughtout the film are just another example of how hilarious this movie can be. Such a lovely balance of dealing with all these serious elements while simultaneously lightening the mood with moments of pure delight.

Again the score helps immensely with this. It’s such a pleasure to have these little pockets of room to breathe in, with such serious content. That balance is something I dig in most films. Even in the most dire of situations, humor can really help alleviate the stress and tension, without undercutting the current dilemma. It’s just part of the human condition.

SStar: This reflects a personal theory on dramatic works; it’s adapted from Mary Poppins–the old “spoonful of sugar” bit. It is my belief that whatever the work you’re presenting, it always goes down easier if you accentuate it for laughs…Not to demean the dramatic quality of a piece, but any work you could mention, no matter how bleak, has comedic elements attached to it.

BR: Yup. I back that theory as well, my man. That’s why the works of Joss Whedon, things like the Buffy-verse, or Firefly work so well. The release of humor in the time of the world destruction can be a wonderful reminder of why are fighting the fight to begin with.

Another example: Terminator 2 vs Terminator 4: Salvation. There are so many hilarious moments in T2 that lend humanity to that film. Young John Conner teaching Arnold to be more human, random bits of miscommunicated interaction–just flat out funny things happening against the back drop of the world about to be over-run by robots…that is a huge element missing from Terminator 4. As pretty as that film is, there is not one single moment in it that doesn’t take itself sooo seriously. Nothing to lighten the mood at all. By the end of watching it, you’re just mad and exhausted at why it sucks. It was such a huge element missing from that film.

The Third Man; tonight at 7:00p.m. and 9:30p.m. // Central Cinema, 1411 21st Avenue // $6 in advance, $8 at the door