The Love Letter
directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan
The Third Man
directed by Carol Reed
Kate Capshaw plays Helen, a bookstore owner who discovers an unsigned love letter and obsesses about its author among her kooky employees and quaint neighbors. Her romantic suspicions make her antsy–like a vacationer freaking out from Lyme disease panic. Screenwriter Maria Maggenti rips off the more interesting plot of the 1985 Secret Admirer, which contrasted teenagers’ flirtation with their parents’ restlessness. But The Love Letter, ordering sex comedy accessories from the Nora Ephron catalog of refurbished cliches, ruins the conceit with smug whimsy uncomfortably similar to You’ve Got Mail. (And Peter Ho-Sun Chan directs with as little ethnic sense or sensibility as Ang Lee brought to Sense and Sensibility.) One of Helen’s clerks describes her, saying, “She’s celibate–not physically but mentally.” Clearly, these filmmakers aren’t so chaste; they’re only interested in perpetrating a mind-fuck.
In a different way from the Love Letter music, Anton Karas’ zither music for The Third Man is unnerving to demonstrate the long-lost intent of serious filmmaking. Carol Reed, Orson Welles and Graham Greene created The Third Man as an entertainment, 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 attempt to pique interest, stimulate thought, while telling a story. The contrast between these two films highlights their respective eras: The Love Letter panders to audiences, while The Third Man (now playing at Film Forum) presumes their sophistication.
At the peak of the 1940s film noir movement, Reed, Welles and Greene condensed the genre to its basic interest in human motivation and social opportunity. They performed as artist-rescuers in a genre that would inevitably be debased. The setup wasn’t cynical but heartfelt: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a naive, cadging American author of pulp westerns, comes to Vienna at the invitation of his friend Harry Lime. Arriving in the midst of post WWII turmoil, with bombed-out Vienna policed by American, British, French and Russian troops, Holly discovers Lime’s funeral. He meets Lime’s mistress, Ukranian actress Anna (Alida Valli), then investigates his old sport’s unexpected death–witnessed by two Europeans and an unidentified third man.
In many ways this simple outline represents a purification of detective movie elements–sort of the way The Love Letter gives a white, affluent-American, leisure-time distillation of some of the same confusions and compulsions found in, say, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the ingenuity of The Third Man comes 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 perception has become timelessly instructive. Reed, Welles and Greene accurately portrayed the transitory, unsettling late-40s moral climate in ways genre films usually ignore.
Shot in Vienna by Robert Krasker, The Third Man records the war-torn city’s stone and emotional ruins. Bold ventures of European location-filming such as Fred Zinnemann’s The Search became a postwar enlightened convention following the Italian neorealists, but the intention here was to achieve an emotional documentary. When Harry Lime gets lost among the hustlers and refugees, soldiers and war criminals and their desperate motivations, a sense of the changed world’s chaos is made palpable. Holly’s half-corny, half-fantasy code of justice confronts a meaner sense of reality. The art (and political mythology) represented by this fabricator of Old West tales is paralleled by theatrical contrivances that Anna acts out onstage in gowns and wigs that hide her dark-haired, tremulous vulnerability. Holly is swayed by Anna; her love for Harry matches Holly’s loyalty, but both these romantics are cheated of their emotional trust by Harry’s elusiveness and ruthless sense of survival.
Holly finds himself onstage throughout Vienna–not just in the comic mix-up of his “lucky” address before a literary society whose members ask the hack his opinion of James Joyce, but on the dark, rain-wet streets where the occupying troops (headed by Trevor Howard as British Major Calloway) jostle him or the German-speaking citizens suspect him of murder. Holly’s dilemma–the film’s superficial drama–plays out as precisely and predictably as one of Anna’s Viennese farces (operettas strangely without music). But Holly has to improvise in his own existential drama, a position that defines the postwar consciousness of evil, corruption–life.
This shock–this astonishment–is caused by Harry Lime, whose wartime misdeeds include a treacherous penicillin scam along with his passport forgeries and black-market fencing. Welles provokes this 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’s cat seeks out a familiar scent; then he’s seen running rat-like through the labyrinth of sewers pursued by flashlights and bullets. Welles’ legendary performance (including the famous self-penned speech comparing the Borgias’ infamous overture to the Renaissance to Switzerland’s peaceful creation of the cuckoo clock) galvanizes the entire film’s sense of unresolved mystery–the mystery of human behavior–moving our dismay toward hard, dark recognition with a flourish like a sweep of Dracula’s cape.
Welles’ brief role–as singular and important as an aria–turns showbiz panache into a moral and esthetic challenge. Between Cotten’s wan American, Valli’s exoticism and Howard’s effeteness, Welles’ charisma has the greater emotional pitch–despite Lime’s repellent deeds. Not until Brando in The Freshman would 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 Man Welles expresses a detailed, almost baroque pessimism to match the most profound moments of his disturbing masterwork, The Magnificent Ambersons–a view of family experience that opposes (and exposes) Hollywood’s happy-happy myth. Though Welles is not the screenwriter or director of The Third Man, his presence–the most significant esthetic influence of the 1940s–is undeniable here, as it also was in such films as Robert Stevenson’s 1944 Jane Eyre and Henry King’s 1949 Prince of Foxes. His force was obviously moral as well as intellectual and esthetic. (Reed, a worthy, world-class artist in his own right, made fun of this by paying homage to Welles; he alludes to the white cockateel that interrupted a Citizen Kane flashback when another cockateel pecks Holly’s hand during an investigation.)
Moral showmanship is The Third Man’s most amazing 50-year anniversary reminder. Karas’ zither score has become inseparable from the film, redolent of something strange and undeniable, foreign yet in your pulse–not emotional perfume or merely a love or adventure theme. The score portrays the knowledge Reed, Greene and Welles had that art can have a lingering effect (to match its social and political relevance). Not many collaborations in movie history are as illustrious–or successful–as this. Welles’ sensibility meshes with the sensibility of Reed’s films The Stars Look Down, Odd Man Out and Outcast of the Islands and with the awareness of destiny, character and history in Greene’s novels Brighton Rock and End of the Affair.
Although we seem to be in a completely different moral and esthetic era, the problems presented by crude, insipid 90s films, whether The Love Letter or Pulp Fiction, are anticipated by The Third Man’s great achievement and great warning. Specifically, its artistic trio’s serious treatment of postwar, modern despair shames what has become of film noir and postmodern sophistication. Harry Lime’s Renaissance vs. Cuckoo Clock speech opposes the splendor of art to the timekeeping sense of morality. Welles surely understood that our conscious lives subsist on both. With Reed and Greene, he developed an anecdote to show that art (movies) can be a moral timekeeper. Keeping that balance is an artist’s responsibility. But as movies–especially the noir genre–have developed recently, the balance has collapsed. There is nothing like The Third Man’s sense of outrage in Pulp Fiction, which delights in sinister atmosphere and yields to the excitement of violence, the humor of adolescent shock, but without any of The Third Man’s sorrow or, specifically, Holly’s (our) sense of regret.
Walter Hill’s best postmodern films–The Warriors, The Long Riders, Johnny Handsome, Geronimo: An American Legend, Wild Bill and especially 1978’s The Driver–all act out Holly’s private confrontation between pulp sentiment and modern anarchy. Hill measures the changed beat of human surprise and dismay, keeping noir honest. (While most critics look the other way.) But Pulp Fiction and its effect on other films cheat us of the real world consciousness that Welles, Reed and Greene knew provided noir’s substance and made it a valid consideration of modern existence–not merely a clever contradiction. Pulp Fiction’s cool distance from reality–which has destroyed modern cinema more than the galactic odysseys of Star Wars ever could–proves contemporary Hollywood lacks the courage to delve into our era’s most dismaying conflicts. Welles, Reed and Greene proved artists could look life in the eye and still indulge intelligent fantasy even so soon after the earthshaking events of World War II. They proved ENTERTAINMENT IS NO EXCUSE FOR DISHONESTY.
The Love Letter, though of a different genre, is not far from the garbage that film noir has become. But its vacuous romanticism is also shamed by The Third Man. Holly finds himself attracted to Anna–an American-in-Europe tragedy that anticipates Last Tango in Paris. This sobering look at a young, proud culture’s attraction to the complexity of experience and compromise is the film’s most astounding insight. Holly’s committed to justice and his refusal to excuse Harry’s sins are part of his romantic idealism. For all he learns in topsy-turvy Vienna, he has yet to understand that many people ignore his old principles, that the world has moved beyond simple romanticism. At The Third Man’s close–a movie ending so all-time great not even Altman could beat or satirize it in The Long Goodbye (he paid it wistful homage)–there is a devastating pantomime of the modern world’s wounded, unmerciful strut.
So today, The Third Man is also a love letter–not just to the way movies used to be but to the sophistication today’s movies have lost.