Thursday, March 11, 2010

What's Under the Surface...

Films: The Third Man, The Manchurian Candidate
Format: DVDs from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

About a month ago, I commented that of the 1001+ movies I’m planning on watching through this particular marathon, there are ones that I’m dreading, ones that I don’t really care about, and ones that I’m really looking forward to. With The Third Man, how could I not look forward to it? Orson Welles! Joseph Cotten! Based on a story by one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene, and with a screenplay adapted by Greene himself! What’s not to love?

I am happy to report that this film does not disappoint. It is a near perfect film for a number of reasons. The script is tremendous, the plot is fantastic, the musical score is interesting and unique, and the cinematography is a lesson in how to film a movie. It is both beautiful and disturbing. I should warn you now that the really good stuff here about The Third Man is in the spoilers. Don’t ruin this movie for yourself. If you haven’t seen it, watch it first, then come back and read this.

The story concerns a writer of Western potboilers named Holly Martins (Cotten), who arrives in Vienna in the years just after World War II. Like many of the cities in the remnants of the Third Reich, it has been divided into quarters, one each for the Americans, the French, the British, and the Russians. A great deal of black marketeering, crime, and corruption plagues the city. Holly is there at the invitation of an old friend named Harry Lime. When he arrives at Lime’s apartment, he discovers that his friend is dead, run over by a wayward car in front of his building.

Holly attends the funeral and notices a few people. In particular, he notices a woman named Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and a police major named Calloway (Trevor Howard). He also soon makes the acquaintance of a man named Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) who was also a friend of Harry Lime’s. Things quickly become complicated when it becomes evident that there isn’t a consistent story about how Harry died. It’s unclear, for instance, how many men helped carry Harry’s body off the road. Some claim two, but others claim that there was a third man (hence the title).

The issue here is Harry Lime’s innocence or guilt in smuggling and black marketeering. Specifically, the police have determined that Harry was behind the sale of watered down penicillin to hospitals. Watered down like that, the penicillin not only doesn’t cure anything, it makes penicillin potentially ineffective when used later. A number of the victims of Harry’s alleged crime were children.

There’s more, of course. Anna was Lime’s lover, and she has her own problems. Her passport is a fake, created by Lime for her to give her Austrian citizenship. She is actually Czech, and the Russians want her back. And there’s a real concern that Holly Martins might not make it out of Vienna alive.


The big shocker here is that Harry Lime (Orson Welles) faked his own death and is still alive. And it is a significant shock. For the first full hour or more of the film, this is a straight murder mystery as Holly attempts to find out who killed Harry Lime and why. When Lime himself shows up, it’s essentially the end of the second act of the film, and only forty minutes or so remain.

This entrance is one of the great film reveals in history. Holly Martins sees a man standing in the shadows outside of Anna’s apartment. He calls for the man to reveal himself, but the man refuses. Suddenly, a light clicks on in a nearby apartment. This light falls perfectly on Lime’s face, and Welles is perfect here, offering a subtle half smile that is both disarming and conspiratorial. It’s the smile of a man who knows he has the world on a string and he’s just clever enough to let one more person in on the secret.


The soundtrack is worthy of a mention simply because it is so unusual. Not a full orchestra, or a band, the music in the film is provided by a zither, which provides a number of moods throughout the film. The soundtrack is wistful at times, exciting at others, and romantic at still others. It’s wonderfully effective, and past the initial shock of such an unusual instrument, it proves a wonderful backdrop to the film.

It’s the cinematography that really sells this film, though. A number of the shots are canted at strange angles. Just as the story itself is constantly throwing Holly off balance, the tilted shots constantly keep the audience off balance and unsettled as well. This dovetails nicely with the fact that a great deal of the dialogue in the film is in German, and is not translated in subtitles or in any other way. Essentially, we are kept as off balance and as in the dark as Holly Martins is. This is enhanced by the scenery of post-war Vienna, complete with rubble and bombed out cars.


This is never done better than during the scene on the Ferris wheel. As Martins and Lime talk back and forth, each playing his next card in their struggle against each other, the car they are in swings back and forth in constant motion, never spending more than the briefest moment on the level. Again, just as we are unsure of the outcome of this conversation, the cinematography itself doesn’t allow us to be sure, giving each man the upper hand at varying times.

While I’ve got the spoiler alert up, it’s worth mentioning that Welles gets the best lines, which is somehow fitting. Lime is a despicable man who justifies selling tainted medication to children by commenting to Holly that it should matter to no one if one of the dots on the ground below their Ferris wheel car should stop moving. This is Lime’s view of the world—those little specks down there are nothing to him, and Lime doesn’t need the extensive distance to reconcile this. People to him are always specks a long way off, even when they are standing next to him.

And yet, consider this: Not five years before this film takes place, Allied pilots dropped bombs on cities all over Europe, effectively creating the bombed-out Vienna of this film. They stopped plenty of those little dots from moving forever, many of them children. For this, many received medals. Lime does the same thing, and he’s a terrible person.

The other great comment comes at the end of that scene. Lime comments that everything will be fine for Holly, even if it really isn’t. Lime makes the additional comment that while 30 years of Borgia reign in Italy was bad for the population, this also stirred the Renaissance and helped create Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Switzerland had 500 years of peace and democracy gave the world the cuckoo clock. It’s a fascinating comment—bad things create greatness, and Lime’s rationale for his behavior, while possibly true, certainly doesn’t justify what a monster he is.


A magnificent piece of film. This is about as good as a film ever gets.

The Manchurian Candidate is similar in many respects. Both of the films are about something they aren’t really about, at least on the surface. Like The Third Man, much of the actual story lies hidden and needs to be revealed. It has a similar complex and intricate plot filled with intrigue, double-crosses and the sort of dealings that only happen in the best spy novels and films and in the most vivid imaginations of the people who watch and read such things.

Just as importantly, it is proof that at one time, Frank Sinatra actually cared about the roles he took in films. As much as it may seem that his later career at least was little more than a chance for him to spend days goofing with the Rat Pack and nights doing the same in Vegas, there were times when he acted in good roles that were well-written, and he acted them with conviction.

The Manchurian Candidate is the story of Major Bennett Marco (Sinatra), recently home from the Korean War. He’s been having troubling dreams and more troubling lapses in his memory. He can vaguely remember being captured by the enemy, but these memories seem to be tied up with a garden party with a bunch of ladies. He can also remember the heroic actions of a man in his platoon named Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), whose father is a U.S. Senator (James Gregory). But everything seems slightly off for some reason. None of it is right.

While Marco attempts to figure out what is going on, a web of plots and plots within plots begin to tighten around him and the men from his former platoon. At the head of this is Iselin’s mother (Angela Lansbury). She is a loathsome woman, her husband is a loathsome man. Additionally, Raymond Shaw himself is not much of a prize. He admits it himself—he’s not a lovable person. Despite this, then men in his platoon drop into monotone and recite a stock phrase about what a great man he is when asked.

While it is certainly the plot that moves this film and the various reveals and intricacies make for a compelling watch, it is Angela Lansbury more than anyone, including Sinatra, who gives this film its intense and disturbing edge. It’s a performance that sometimes seems to be easily forgotten and overlooked, but she is perhaps one of the greatest screen villains in history. Everything she does is covered in a veneer of motherly love, all for the good of her son. At the same time, everything she does is so despicable and diabolical that it is impossible to find her anything but repugnant regardless of the motives she claims to have. It’s a startling thing for a generation of people who remember her best as the kooky, murder-solving Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote.

The Manchurian Candidate was remade a few years ago, and remade fairly competently, featuring such Hollywood luminaries as Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. The “Manchurian” part of the name in the remake does feel like a cobble, though. In the original, it’s much more natural. The men in Marco’s platoon were captured by the Chinese. The film itself is a decent remake, but it’s not the same as the original, which is tauter, smarter, and better.

The one sticking point with this film is the presence of Eugenie (Janet Leigh), who seems willing to overthrow her entire life based on a chance meeting with Major Marco. She takes pity on him, and suddenly seems willing do whatever Marco needs her to do, including dumping her fiancĂ©. It’s one of those instant love things that seem so prevalent in movies of this age that doesn’t work nearly as well for a more modern audience.

It is worth noting that while the plot of this film is complicated and convoluted, there isn’t a great deal that is kept from the viewer. It becomes evident within the first few minutes of the film precisely what is going on. Shaw, Marco, and the rest of the platoon were captured by the North Koreans and were brainwashed in a variety of ways. Precisely the point of the brainwashing, and the extent to which it goes are something that the film slowly reveals. But the audience knows that things are hinky immediately.

Any film that requires, nay forces you to pay this close of attention to it without you realizing how carefully you are watching is a film to study.

Why to watch The Third Man: A masterpiece in nearly every part.
Why not to watch: Your life is a void.

Why to watch The Manchurian Candidate: Angela Lansbury and one of the greatest black ops plots ever conceived in film or real life.
Why not to watch: Jessica Fletcher, what have you done?


  1. The Third Man remains one of my favorite movies. I first watched it during a college course on literature and film, and it's an incredible piece of noir.

  2. A very interesting comment, Steve, on Lime's view on those specks on the ground. A slight change in perspective and yesterday's heroes are today's monsters. I had not thought of that analogy, but you are right, it is there to contemplate.
    Like you I was not disappointed by this film. This was a truly great experience.

  3. I frequently use a similar question in discussing morality and argumentation with classes. While I'm not a believer in moral relativity, I am a believer in situational ethics, and Lime's speech is the dark side of that conversation.

  4. The Manchurian Candidate was one of the first revies you did, wasn't it? Did you ever see it again, here on the other side of the List? It is too early for me to say, but I have a feeling this is one of those movies that will stick as one of the gems.
    I noticed that the poster for the movie top bills Janet Leigh and does not even mention Angela Lansbury. Seems like a weird choice since Leigh is essentially filler and Lansbury's is the key character of the movie.

    1. I have watched it a few times. It's one I reference pretty regularly in my walking around, daily life.

      Putting Janet Leigh on the poster actually makes good sense for the time. She's the romantic lead, which makes her a lot more relevant in that sense than Angela Lansbury, even if the romance is completely cobbled in.