Film James Cooray Smith has been kind enough to write a guest post about my favourite film of 1949:
The Third Viewing
The first time I saw The Third Man was on television, and the very ending shocked me. When she walks past him on the path out of the graveyard. Because films didn’t end like that. Or at least the films seen by my pre-teen self on weekend afternoons didn’t.
The second time I saw The Third Man was at the cinema, and the very beginning shocked me. When a voice gives you an idea of what to expect. Because the BFI, bless them, showed both versions of the opening narration, both the one for the US market, voiced by Joseph Cotten in character as Holly Martins, and the odder, more omniscient one read by director Carol Reed, that played in the rest of the world.
I had never quite realised, despite attempts by Alex Cox in his Moviedrome introductions to educate me as to this point, that films, even big films, can and usually do have a textual history, like editions of a book do and that in film as in print, no text is purely correct, or indeed correct or pure.
The third time I saw The Third Man, I wrote an undergraduate essay about it. I don’t remember what I wrote. I remember I got what we’d all then self-flatteringly call a ‘High 2:1’. I no longer have a copy, and no one to ask for one, or about it’s content, because the tutor for whom I wrote it, the wonderful Michael Mason, has sadly gone on to the large SCR in the sky.
What might I have written about? The manufactured controversy over whether Welles’ directed any of it? (He didn’t.) Or the more interesting one over whether Graham Greene’s prose narrative of his script, written in preparation for writing the latter, but revised after the film was made, counts as a novelisation or not? (I think it does.) It might have been about whether it’s a British or American film. (It’s the former, by any sensible criteria, despite the AFI’s claims to contrary.) I may have dealt with its status as perhaps the first big feature film to be able to treat the Cold War as ongoing and contemporary.
I could have written about Welles’ dialogue on the wheel, and whether the inaccuracy of its claims (the Swiss did not invent the Cookoo clock, which is German and at the time of the Borgias had a vast and feared European army) are the unintended results of improvisation or a deliberate characterisation. Lime is, after all, a con man, and like his name, corrosive or preservative, depending on how you treat him.
Perhaps I bound them all together and wondered whether Greene or Welles or Carol Reed was the film’s “author”. Probably not. I’ve never had much time for auteur theory, but I honestly can’t remember.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? There are so many things to say about The Third Man, on a third or a thirtieth viewing. A magnificent, haunting work of art achieved, like all truly great cinema, through collaboration and accident, improvisation and alchemy rather than a single concrete ‘vision’. It’s also a film that casts a long shadow (yes, I know what I did there), with its radio adaptations and spin offs (with Orson Welles!) and television series sequel (without Orson Welles) and how it is endlessly parodied, borrowed from and copied.
Forty years after The Third Man was shot, its sound editor, John Glen, went back to that square, with its wheel still in situ, to shoot a peculiarly straight sort of homage to that scene, in his capacity as the director of The Living Daylights, the last James Bond film to be set in the Cold War, and perhaps the last big feature film to be able to treat that war as ongoing and contemporary.
I never got to know Vienna, the old Vienna of the Cold War, I didn’t go there until this century, to visit my sister who was working as a translator. It was the 22nd of March 2004 and I was walking back to her flat, I think I’d been sent out to buy food, and I was mostly looking down at my phone as I walked. It had been announced that Christopher Eccleston was to play the new Doctor Who, and I was mostly exchanging texts with friends about what an extraordinary piece of casting this was. I was going down some steps, and I slightly stumbled. I looked up to correct my course and there it was. The square. The one in which Welles disappears down a manhole during the film’s. The circular advertising hoarding was still there. It was absolutely unmistakeable, at least partially because I’d accidentally more or less created Reed’s camera angle on that moment with my stumbling entrance to the square. I gasped.
Alchemy, chemistry, accident. Perfect moment. Life imitating art.