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The Scrivener: Evil Lies Behind Kittens, Cuckoo Clocks And Teddy Bears

Brian Barratt brings some notes on the film “The Third Man’’, the extraordinary once-seen-never-forgotten screen adapatation of a Graham Greene novel.

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There is no doubt that the first appearance of Orson Welles as Harry Lime, towards the end of the 1949 film 'The Third Man', is as creepily dramatic as it could be. It is also packed with irony. He is a foul criminal hiding in the darkness of a doorway among the stark ruined buildings of post-War Vienna. Military and police authorities have not been able to find him but his presence is detected and revealed by... a small kitten playing with his shoe-lace.

Three different kittens were used to create the sequence. The final shot, showing only part of Harry Lime's trousers and shoes, is one of several in the film where Orson Welles did not actually take part. A stand-in was used, while the crew worked out a way of getting kitten no. 3 to play with the shoe-lace.

This small but striking scene is one of the many small elements which link with much longer sequences to make 'The Third Man' a remarkable film. Indeed, it is at the top of a list of the 100 best British films compiled by the British Film Institute from votes by 1,000 experts. Now, in our era of computerisation, special effects, manipulation of colour, wide screens, and all the other gimmicks of modern film-making, we have to ask if and why a 60-year-old black and white film is still 'great'.

For a start, the black and white photography itself is stunning. Robert Krasker, an Australian photographer, won the film's only Oscar. The film also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949. It isn't merely black and white — it is intensively rich and creative black and white, comparable to Gunnar Fischer's photography in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film 'The Seventh Seal'. Pale faced, less than handsome, and dressed in black, Orson Welles is echoed in appearance by Bengt Ekerot playing the role of Death in Bergman's film.

There are very few studio shots and only one painted backdrop (as far as I can detect). The fast-paced action takes place on the streets, in the alleys, and among the ruins of a city devastated by bombing in World War 2. The intrigue, mystery and tension are enhanced by the fact that the camera is often held at an angle. We see 'bird's eye views' but also many 'worm's eye views' as though we are ourselves hiding low in some dark corner.

The illusion of nightmare reality is reinforced by the tight editing. One wonders how much film ended up on the cutting room floor. The result would not have been possible without Carol Reed's incisive direction, or the fact that he collaborated very closely, and sometimes argued, with novelist Graham Greene.

The characters reflect, or are perhaps close to stereotypes of, the sort of people who actually haunted Vienna at the time. Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, a naive American writer who interferes with and subsequently becomes dangerously involved in a local problem he does not understand (which seems somewhat prophetic). The sceptical, aloof, British Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, tries to get Cotten out of the country but eventually realises that he just has to let the American know what's really going on.

Alida Valli portrays Harry Lime's lover, whose love remained unrequited, so beautifully and coolly that it takes a long time to work out exactly what her feelings are. It is perhaps not a mere mistake when she persists in calling Holly 'Harry'. When we first see Orson Welles as Harry Lime, hiding in that dark doorway, his supercilious smirk tells us straight away what sort of man we are dealing with.

A short speech made by Harry Lime seems to have entered the annals of cinema history. It wasn't written by Graham Greene or Carol Reed but by Orson Welles himself, and sums up Lime's cynicism, amorality, and justification of his murderous crime:

'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.'

I have yet to find a write-up, synopsis or review which points out that the cuckoo clock was neither invented nor initially popularised in Switzerland. It originated in the Schwarzwald, Black Forest, of Germany.

There are also many characters on the edge of the story who variously confuse and amuse us, helping us to understand or not to understand who and what the American writer is looking for — the sleazy Baron Kurtz; a bumbling British cultural representative; an infuriated German landlady; a small boy who innocently sparks off a futile chase by an angry mob; a Russian military officer whose precise role remains obscure; a doctor who carefully avoids straight answers; and many more.

Amidst all this, we see a great deal of action. Carol Reed also chooses very adroitly what we do not see. For example, we do not see the murdered body of the porter, early in the story. Calls, gestures, and the abrupt change of direction of two characters tell us enough. It is a pity that present-day films and TV crime series have steadily increased the amount of detail they show us of bloodied, and worse, corpses. Good script, direction, acting and photography are sufficient to convey shock and apprehension, as shown here by Carol Reed.

Likewise, we do not see the children in hospital beds who are the victims of Harry Lime's despicable acts. The faces of the actors, the silence, and discarded teddy bears are quite sufficient to tell that story. We do not see the final shot which kills Harry Lime. We see the build-up, hear the shot echoing through the sewers, and see what happens next. We feel the tension and understand exactly what it means to Holly Martins, the previously innocent writer.

And then there is the music. The film-makers had not decided what to use as background music until they heard a stranger playing an unknown instrument in a café. It was of course Anton Karas on his zither. The unforgettable 'Harry Lime' theme, with its range of variations from soothing to jarring, is one of the most powerful elements in the film.

So is 'The Third Man' the greatest British film ever made? The answer to that question depends on your personal tastes and your knowledge of films. It is certainly an extraordinary film which will haunt you for a long time.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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