On The Third Man and Classic movies
I knew the music, of course. The extraordinary zither based theme. I knew the author of the novel, but I am slightly ashamed to admit that I had only ever read The Honorary Consul,of Graham Greene’s marvellous collection. BBC4’s i-player collection allowed me to finally introduce myself to The Third Man. Every scene is a work of art says critic Mark Kermode. What was all the fuss about?
Once one gets past the unreality of some of the filming, especially scenes in cars, and puts aside one’s credulity to understand Calloway’s determination and the compromises and daily morality tests of a broken post-war city, it gets rather good.
Deducing whether Anna is ‘good’ or complicit in her lover’s antics, possible crimes, or perhaps his death is one challenge. Understanding the motive for Harry Lime luring an old but somewhat remote friend, Martins, to a war-torn city is another.
Controlling one’s mental gymnastics over the fact that at this point Russians are still allies and information is shared with them, as well as the French, as profiteering and crime might be part of wider conspiracies and espionage requires a certain vigilance.
All the while, the protagonist is not appearing. We don’t know if he is a victim, (after all we have seen his funeral) or something much more sinister. The film’s brilliant introduction to him requires no words, merely an attentive cat and some smart brogues. Has character ever been better introduced into a film?
Amid the black and white cinematography we touch (almost) the heavens as Lime takes a ride on The Great Wheel, but mostly contemplate a more hellish existence as the action plays out in the sewer system. The direction surely wanted to play with Greene’s Catholicism. Martins actually reminds Lime “you used to be a Catholic”. Faith is always tested, but this film wants to note how often it is found wanting. All cities have light and dark, rich and poor. One thinks of Bill Sykes and Fagin keeping their ill-gotten riches amongst the dirt and detritus of a different city.
Calloway, marvellously played by Trevor Howard, is enigmatic and may not be an especially ‘good’ man, or just someone compromised by experience. The real hero is his trusty Sergeant, Paine, who inevitably is killed. Being virtuous is not always rewarded seems to be the message, or perhaps a warning. Good vs evil is played out ambiguously throughout the film, as people spy and inform on others, but intervene to protect vulnerable characters at significant moments. We are all conflicted, it tells us.
I could not help but think of the apparent corruption at the heart of those in power in this day and age. Lime thinks his corrupt activities and his penicillin appropriation and adulteration are something he does because it he does not, then someone else will. He suggests that there is something inevitable about it all and he is merely taking a share because he is an intelligent opportunist. I look at the current Health Secretary and wonder if his conduct is simply because he sees his peers lining their own pockets and feels he is only taking his share which any other appointee to the role would do too?
The other theme is how we learn that someone we once admired may have not been all we thought we saw and how coping with that destruction of an idealised figure can be so painful. Martins really struggles to accept Lime’s culpability and dishonesty. By contrast, Anna knows her lover for what he is but because he is keeping her from being sent to the mercy of the Russians with a brilliant forged ID, she is obligated. Compromise, for her, was long ago embraced.
Further, circumstance can damage all of our moral stances. Martins is initially a naïve but valiant and valuable friend, but he comes to realise that betrayals and deceits are currencies with which one can trade in a corrupt world. He thinks that he is absolved by placing Anna’s safety above the actions he is going to take to trap Lime.
The film helps us deal with moral confusion and moral defeat, so much so that when (out of shot) Martins shoots his old friend dead, we find ourselves thinking that it is virtuous and right. Throughout the film Anna has told us that Lime is better off dead, even when it starts to become clear to her that his first funeral was a charade.
Apparently Greene himself said that the film was better than the story, which he claimed was written to be seen rather than read. Whatever the truth of that, I intend to read it, and a few more Greene stories before this year is much older. And we may be able to go out to eat and have a pint now, but I intend to see a few more ‘classic movies’ too.