The LoveLetter directed by PeterHo-Sun Chan The ThirdMan
directed by CarolReed
Kate Capshaw plays Helen,a bookstore owner who discovers an unsigned love letter and obsesses about itsauthor among her kooky employees and quaint neighbors. Her romantic suspicionsmake her antsy?like a vacationer freaking out from Lyme disease panic.Screenwriter Maria Maggenti rips off the more interesting plot of the 1985 SecretAdmirer, which contrasted teenagers' flirtation with their parents'restlessness. But The Love Letter, ordering sex comedy accessories fromthe Nora Ephron catalog of refurbished cliches, ruins the conceit with smugwhimsy uncomfortably similar to You've Got Mail. (And Peter Ho-SunChan directs with as little ethnic sense or sensibility as Ang Lee brought toSense and Sensibility.) One of Helen's clerks describes her, saying,"She's celibate?not physically but mentally." Clearly, thesefilmmakers aren't so chaste; they're only interested in perpetratinga mind-fuck. In a different way fromthe Love Letter music, Anton Karas' zither music for The ThirdMan is unnerving to demonstrate the long-lost intent of serious filmmaking.Carol Reed, Orson Welles and Graham Greene created The Third Man as anentertainment, but not a lulling or self-satisfied one. They performed a different,more scrupulous mind game than The Love Letter, which Karas'plucked-string dissonance (immediately memorable) epitomizes as the attemptto pique interest, stimulate thought, while telling a story. The contrast betweenthese two films highlights their respective eras: The Love Letter pandersto audiences, while The Third Man (now playing at Film Forum) presumestheir sophistication. At the peak of the 1940sfilm noir movement, Reed, Welles and Greene condensed the genre to its basicinterest in human motivation and social opportunity. They performed as artist-rescuersin a genre that would inevitably be debased. The setup wasn't cynical butheartfelt: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a naive, cadging American author ofpulp westerns, comes to Vienna at the invitation of his friend Harry Lime. Arrivingin the midst of post WWII turmoil, with bombed-out Vienna policed by American,British, French and Russian troops, Holly discovers Lime's funeral. Hemeets Lime's mistress, Ukranian actress Anna (Alida Valli), then investigateshis old sport's unexpected death?witnessed by two Europeans and anunidentified third man. In many ways this simpleoutline represents a purification of detective movie elements?sort of theway The Love Letter gives a white, affluent-American, leisure-time distillationof some of the same confusions and compulsions found in, say, Shakespeare'sA Midsummer Night's Dream. But the ingenuity of The Third Mancomes from stirring up the simplified premise. Its purified noir rituals (suspicion,seduction) take place in an atmosphere of corruption (double-cross, crime, retribution).Seeing this movie 50 years later, one is overwhelmed by how its timely perceptionhas become timelessly instructive. Reed, Welles and Greene accurately portrayedthe transitory, unsettling late-40s moral climate in ways genre films usuallyignore. Shot in Vienna by RobertKrasker, The Third Man records the war-torn city's stone and emotionalruins. Bold ventures of European location-filming such as Fred Zinnemann'sThe Search became a postwar enlightened convention following the Italianneorealists, but the intention here was to achieve an emotional documentary.When Harry Lime gets lost among the hustlers and refugees, soldiers and warcriminals and their desperate motivations, a sense of the changed world'schaos is made palpable. Holly's half-corny, half-fantasy code of justiceconfronts a meaner sense of reality. The art (and political mythology) representedby this fabricator of Old West tales is paralleled by theatrical contrivancesthat Anna acts out onstage in gowns and wigs that hide her dark-haired, tremulousvulnerability. Holly is swayed by Anna; her love for Harry matches Holly'sloyalty, but both these romantics are cheated of their emotional trust by Harry'selusiveness and ruthless sense of survival. Holly finds himself onstagethroughout Vienna?not just in the comic mix-up of his "lucky"address before a literary society whose members ask the hack his opinion ofJames Joyce, but on the dark, rain-wet streets where the occupying troops (headedby Trevor Howard as British Major Calloway) jostle him or the German-speakingcitizens suspect him of murder. Holly's dilemma?the film's superficialdrama?plays out as precisely and predictably as one of Anna's Viennesefarces (operettas strangely without music). But Holly has to improvise in hisown existential drama, a position that defines the postwar consciousness ofevil, corruption?life. This shock?this astonishment?iscaused by Harry Lime, whose wartime misdeeds include a treacherous penicillinscam along with his passport forgeries and black-market fencing. Welles provokesthis nervous system jolt in a delayed entrance and a spectacular finale. First,his shoes are spied in Krasker's closeup of a shadowy doorway where Anna'scat seeks out a familiar scent; then he's seen running rat-like throughthe labyrinth of sewers pursued by flashlights and bullets. Welles' legendaryperformance (including the famous self-penned speech comparing the Borgias'infamous overture to the Renaissance to Switzerland's peaceful creationof the cuckoo clock) galvanizes the entire film's sense of unresolved mystery?themystery of human behavior?moving our dismay toward hard, dark recognitionwith a flourish like a sweep of Dracula's cape. Welles' brief role?assingular and important as an aria?turns showbiz panache into a moral andesthetic challenge. Between Cotten's wan American, Valli's exoticismand Howard's effeteness, Welles' charisma has the greater emotionalpitch?despite Lime's repellent deeds. Not until Brando in The Freshmanwould any star play with audience expectation while also satirizing his own"heroism." This stunning role may have added to Welles' industry ostracism as surely as it added to his mystique, because in The Third ManWelles expresses a detailed, almost baroque pessimism to match the mostprofound moments of his disturbing masterwork, The Magnificent Ambersons?aview of family experience that opposes (and exposes) Hollywood's happy-happymyth. Though Welles is not the screenwriter or director of The Third Man,his presence?the most significant esthetic influence of the 1940s?isundeniable here, as it also was in such films as Robert Stevenson's 1944Jane Eyre and Henry King's 1949 Prince of Foxes. His forcewas obviously moral as well as intellectual and esthetic. (Reed, a worthy, world-classartist in his own right, made fun of this by paying homage to Welles; he alludesto the white cockateel that interrupted a Citizen Kane flashback whenanother cockateel pecks Holly's hand during an investigation.) Moral showmanship is TheThird Man's most amazing 50-year anniversary reminder. Karas'zither score has become inseparable from the film, redolent of something strangeand undeniable, foreign yet in your pulse?not emotional perfume or merelya love or adventure theme. The score portrays the knowledge Reed, Greene andWelles had that art can have a lingering effect (to match its social and politicalrelevance). Not many collaborations in movie history are as illustrious?orsuccessful?as this. Welles' sensibility meshes with the sensibilityof Reed's films The Stars Look Down, Odd Man Out and Outcastof the Islands and with the awareness of destiny, character and historyin Greene's novels Brighton Rock and End of the Affair. Although we seem to be ina completely different moral and esthetic era, the problems presented by crude,insipid 90s films, whether The Love Letter or Pulp Fiction, areanticipated by The Third Man's great achievement and great warning.Specifically, its artistic trio's serious treatment of postwar, moderndespair shames what has become of film noir and postmodern sophistication. HarryLime's Renaissance vs. Cuckoo Clock speech opposes the splendor of artto the timekeeping sense of morality. Welles surely understood that our consciouslives subsist on both. With Reed and Greene, he developed an anecdote to showthat art (movies) can be a moral timekeeper. Keeping that balance is an artist'sresponsibility. But as movies?especially the noir genre?have developedrecently, the balance has collapsed. There is nothing like The Third Man'ssense of outrage in Pulp Fiction, which delights in sinister atmosphereand yields to the excitement of violence, the humor of adolescent shock, butwithout any of The Third Man's sorrow or, specifically, Holly's(our) sense of regret. Walter Hill's bestpostmodern films?The Warriors, The Long Riders, JohnnyHandsome, Geronimo: An American Legend, Wild Bill and especially1978's The Driver?all act out Holly's private confrontationbetween pulp sentiment and modern anarchy. Hill measures the changed beat ofhuman surprise and dismay, keeping noir honest. (While most critics look theother way.) But Pulp Fiction and its effect on other films cheat us ofthe real world consciousness that Welles, Reed and Greene knew provided noir'ssubstance and made it a valid consideration of modern existence?not merelya clever contradiction. Pulp Fiction's cool distance from reality?whichhas destroyed modern cinema more than the galactic odysseys of Star Warsever could?proves contemporary Hollywood lacks the courage to delve intoour era's most dismaying conflicts. Welles, Reed and Greene proved artistscould look life in the eye and still indulge intelligent fantasy even so soonafter the earthshaking events of World War II. They proved ENTERTAINMENT ISNO EXCUSE FOR DISHONESTY. The Love Letter,though of a different genre, is not far from the garbage that film noir hasbecome. But its vacuous romanticism is also shamed by The Third Man.Holly finds himself attracted to Anna?an American-in-Europe tragedy thatanticipates Last Tango in Paris. This sobering look at a young, proudculture's attraction to the complexity of experience and compromise isthe film's most astounding insight. Holly's committed to justice andhis refusal to excuse Harry's sins are part of his romantic idealism. Forall he learns in topsy-turvy Vienna, he has yet to understand that many peopleignore his old principles, that the world has moved beyond simple romanticism.At The Third Man's close?a movie ending so all-time great noteven Altman could beat or satirize it in The Long Goodbye (he paid itwistful homage)?there is a devastating pantomime of the modern world'swounded, unmerciful strut. So today, The Third Manis also a love letter?not just to the way movies used to be but to thesophistication today's movies have lost.