Friday, July 31, 2015


Digging through the shelves last night I put together quite a little program for myself. Since I wasn’t able to see the recent theatrical rerelease, I pulled out my Blu-ray of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and combined it with Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger (1946), making for an impromptu Trevor Howard double feature (which wasn't my intention, no disrespect to Howard intended).

If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend Green for Danger highly enough. It’s a sly wink in the direction of the conventions of murder mystery fiction, Alastair Sim sending up with gusto the notion of the omniscient investigator who manipulates witnesses and suspects alike and who seems to be entirely on top of the situation, except when he isn’t. To make things even more interesting, the movie is set in a wartime hospital in the English countryside, German V-1 bombs dropping all around while Sim’s Inspector Cockrill tries to figure out why a postman entering the operating theater after being injured by a V-1 ended up dead, which one of the surgical staff (among them, Howard, Leo Genn, Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Judy Campbell and the wonderful Megs Jenkins) did him in, and who is next on the killer’s list. I've seen this over and over again since I discovered it for myself about eight years ago, and even though I know whodunit, the fun of finding out sustains me every time.

Green for Danger went over extremely well as the second feature following The Third Man and its wholly different sort of murder mystery. There’s just no denying how breathtaking and entertaining this movie is, or how thoroughly the presence of Orson Welles affects the film, as Harry Lime of course, who gets perhaps the greatest extended introduction in the history of cinema, but also as a director in his own right. Welles claims he had nothing directly to do with Carol Reed’s conjuring of an eerily seductive nocturnal Vienna through which Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and Harry’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) pursue the not-quite-believable story of Lime’s accidental death and the vaporous trail of murder and corruption left by his ghost. But certainly the influence of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai can be felt through just about every frame of this gorgeous, chilling picture, which only seems to get stronger as both it and Reed’s critical standing seem to recede further into movie history.

(Spoiler alert: This time around I was shocked by how hard I was hit by the fate of poor Sergeant Paine. Paine, played by Bernard Lee, is the underling of Howard's cynical, brusque but patiently efficient Major Calloway, a stand-up fellow and apparently the only one in Vienna with any genuine appreciation for Martins' talent as a writer of pulp westerns. I went to sleep last night wondering why seeing him face down under the streets of Vienna felt like such a punch in the gut.)

My only complaint: I like “Harry Lime’s Theme” as much as the next guy, but at the risk of being labeled a heretic at the altar of classic cinema, I don’t much care for what Anton Karas’ indigenously styled zither score does, or doesn’t do, for The Third Man. I’ve always found it both heavy-handed and dramatically ineffective, and it often seems to exist on an entirely different plane from the action of the images and the story. I think using Karas’ strings was a bold choice and an interesting experiment, but I don’t think it’s much of a success, and it’s a tribute to what Reed and Graham Greene and cinematographer Robert Krasker and film editor Oswald Hafenrichter and the movie’s stars all brought to the table that even over Karas’ incessant strumming the movie works masterfully to hold the audience in its spell. Karas drops out entirely once the movie hits the sewers, and The Third Man becomes even more taut and suspenseful for the music’s absence. It made me wonder what the movie would have been like with no conventional score at all.

Okay, heresy registered. You may now commence telling me how I don’t know my zither from a hole in the ground.



seanax said...

Are you telling us the Anton Karas does NOT put you in a dither with his zither?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I am dithering, but I am not zithering!

Ron said...

I agree, TTM's zither is as annoying as the electronic blather that passes as soundtrack for Forbidden Planet. The film itself, though, is sub-Lime.

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that the zither is central to the movie's overall tone and feel. It's the brisk sound of a foreign zone, of hidden menace. It's as important as the voiceover narration and the expressionistic angles and the Harry Lime speech. Cheers, Larry A.