When character had top billing
New York — We've heard a great deal from London lately about the fourth man, even about the fifth man, but it was with far greater pleasure that we remade the other night the acquaintance of "The Third Man."
Released just about 30 years ago, the film is a classic thriller that ranks with the best of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. On a Saturday night not too long ago my husband and I decided to stay home and catch it on the late show rather than go out to the movies.
It was a most rewarding choice not only to our pocketbook but our sensibilities. For as I sat there in a sleepy daze of admiration it occurred to me that this movie, the quintessential mystery-romance, was virtually devoid of sex and violence. Not even a four-letter word! How then, I marvelled, a veteran of contemporary cinema, could it possibly have sustained such a pitch of drama and suspense?
Lest your memory of the movie has faded here's a brief synopsis. Directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene "The Third Man" is set in sleazy, postwar Vienna where the black market runs rampant through streets that fairly steam with intrigue. Into this dangerous labyrinth blunders Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), impecunious author of second-rate westerns and apotheosis of the innocent abroad. Holly's best friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has lured him to Vienna with the promise of easy fortune if not fame.
As the movie unfolds we discover that Harry is indeed a crook, an arch-fiend who has no more feeling for his victims than the antlike figures crawling on the ground beneath the ferris wheel on which he and Holly are spinning, Harry is also possessed of a devilish wit, charm, and intelligence that compel us grudgingly to understand why his sweetheart Anna (Alida Valli) and Holly loved him and why the continue to do so even in the midst of their revulsion.
It is at this point that it becomes apparent that the real drama pivots on character rather than plot. This is the essential difference between "The Third Man" and comparable thrillers being made today. The true point of suspense is whether Holly will turn Harry in, and the movie focuses our attention on Holly's inner conflicts rather than the final action. On the one side there is Holly's love for Anna and his sense of morality; on the other his loyalty to his friend of 20 years and his chance to get a piece of the action. Holly may be less wily than Harry but he is far more decent, and we sense that the latter temptation carries far less clout than the stigma of betrayal.
On its most elementary level "The Third Man" is just another good-guy-gets-the-bad-guy movie. As a writer of westerns Holly is far more familiar with such simplistic formulas of right and wrong than with the kind of moral conundrum in which he finds himself entangled.
The point is that "The Third Man" is a humanistic movie that incorporates some of life's great themes -- love, greed, friendship, jealousy, etc. -- and immerses us in the minds of complex characters who are engaged in moral and psychological battles. At the opposite pole, for the sake of contrast, are the James Bond movies in which agent 007 and his adversaries are about as two-dimensional and tasteless as cornflakes. The difference between "Diamonds Are Forever," for example, and "The Third Man" is that the emphasis in the former is on action, the how rather than the why, the doing rather than the feeling, and the need for action seems directly proportional to the lack of characterization. Somethingm has to fill up the void. Hence the prominence of sex and violence.
But violence, specifically the depiction of murder, aside from being offensive, can even be distracting from the desired effect. "The Third Man" actually conforms to the Aristotelian precept for tragedy that no blood be shed onstage, making the dramatic effect more powerful because our concentration is not broken by an insult to our sensibilities. Whereas in a contemporary "thriller" the violence, physical and verbal, almost seems a substitute for substance, as if the plot and dialogue were simply fillers for the next action sequence.
I was similarly shocked by the sex, that is, the absence of sex. There is not even a kiss in the whole movie. And yet the love of Holly for Anna, Anna for Harry -- the emotional intensity of that triangle -- is made for more palpable by the refined dialogue and the yearning strains of Anton Karas's zither score than any R- or X-rated bedroom scene ever could have contrived.
James Bond is too easy a target to shoot at any longer. The subject here is a key difference between a good movie and a bad one -- the aestheticm flaw in too graphic a depiction of sex and violence which exposes a poverty of imagination and a poverty of language, the failure of the write and director to create drama from the literary staples of plot, characterization, and dialogue. In cinematic terms this also means the ability to suggestm an atmosphere through devices that are subtle, oblique, symbolic -- in "The Third Man" the menace in the sound of footsteps in an alley and the sinister presence of a child. This kind of evocation is the lost wax of art.