Monday 7 May 2018 11.03
‘Holly, I’m Still Your Best Friend’ 2018
The Third Man (1949) A Carol Reed Film from a Graham Greene Screenplay
Top 100 Films Ever Made –
This film is #73 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll and #107 in the Directors Poll.
When The Third Man (1949) starts, Holly Martins thinks his best friend, since they were kids at school, is Harry Lime. He immediately learns that Harry is dead, hit by a car, and Holly manages to turn up right at the end of the burial ceremony at the cemetery as Harry’s coffin is lowered into the hole in the ground where his body will rest for eternity. Everything is taken at face value by Holly and the viewer. It is the beginning of a journey of discovery for Holly which the viewer witnesses moment by moment as he discovers the anomalies in the testimony of those who saw the accident and starts to understand what the authorities think happened. Hand in hand, Holly, and the viewer, follow clues. He has no idea where they will take him or what they will make him conclude about his lifelong friend. This story is about the undoing of a friendship. It’s about the harsh realities a person learns when they discover that in certain situations under certain circumstances your closest friend reveals himself to be a bad person. Characteristics which were passed off as boys being boys while growing up, under other pressures and opportunities, reveal the deep character flaws in a person. Holly learns who he is when put under pressure and how different Holly and Harry’s choices are regarding good and evil. In his analysis of himself:
Holly Martins: “I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.”
– The Third Man, written by Graham Greene
I have seen this film at least five or six times, but never projected on to a screen and not with a print as good the restored version released by Studio Canal on blu-ray. The blacks are black and the whites are white and there’s every degree of variation in between. Never having seen such a beautiful print, so large, did I realise how amazing the cinematography is. I’ve always noticed the unusual angles Carol Reed and his DOP chose for many of the scenes, but not the beauty of the photography. Vienna looks amazing. Almost every individual shot, particularly establishing shots or wideshots, is remarkably framed and photographed. Whether it is the cobblestones or the sewers the reflection of light off wet surfaces is so gorgeous that you could enlarge any given frame and hang it on a wall as a work of art.
The story is a curious one. Like Casablanca, for instance, or A Foreign Affair, it tells a side of the Second World War, or its aftermath, that is bizarre or little known. Some of the greatest films about WWII are not about the historical events (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, The Heroes of Telemark) but what it was like sitting, or living, on the sidelines. In recent weeks, seeing films like Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero have allowed me to see what life was like in Rome or Berlin ourtesy of World War 2. Tonight, post WWII Vienna, is revealed, with Vienna cut into four pieces and occupied by the Germans, Americans, French or Russians. Like A Foreign Affair, there’s a lot of crime that goes hand in hand with being the occupier or the occupied, a blackmarket where those criminally-minded can make money at the expense of other human beings.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Third Man, probably twenty years. I’ve never looked closely at the things that Harry Lime does in Vienna that makes him a person of interest for the British. I’ve always known that he was doing something dodgy but because he’s played so well by Orson Welles, with an enigmatic charisma, I’ve never paid much attention to his criminal activities.
Harry Lime has always come across as a guy doing what a guy has to do to make a living when you’re living in desperate times. Even his death at the end always came across – to me – as a sad end to good bad-guy. The film suckered me into accepting Harry Lime at face value without accepting that he has become a despicable person. It doesn’t say much about my mental faculties that I’ve always felt like Harry Lime was the victim, the betrayed and injured party, when it’s crystal clear he’s the bad guy. My own belief in what friendship and honour looks like previously made me believe that Harry was betrayed and Holly was a do-gooder. Of course, that’s also partially the way the film positions itself. It deliberately creates ideas of the sanctity of friendship and honour while undermining it with a few incidents which show how ugly and nasty Harry Lime actually is. Trevor Howard, who is actually a good guy, is made to be unlikeable and Harry is made to be – almost – likeable while the list of crimes that he has ‘supposedly’ committed, accumulate.
How bad does your best friend have to be, and behave, before you betray him? The man Holly knew before has gone. Any good that used to be in Harry Lime has been destroyed by the war and the worst kind of greed, self-interest and amorality, lacking basic humanity. Holly and Harry used to be so close over the years but this new Harry makes Holly change and become a new Holly.
Narrator: “I never knew the old Vienna, with its Strauss waltzes, glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.”
Harry Lime: “But like what the fella says, in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Rennaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, and in five-hundred years of peace and democracy, what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
It’s interesting – to me – that I’m a person who has watched so many films without making value judgments, accepting everything in the terms of the deliverer, that I haven’t looked specifically at what characters do, and judged them by their behaviour and actions. I read a story, or watch a film, and, as I do with history, I accept it as fact, without a great deal of judgment. I’ve done this with my friends but I’ve also believed that it is important to love someone for who they are, or who they were. It’s less important to judge someone for they are now. I don’t know if it is a failing or a gift. My (previously unknown) creed is, ‘What’s done is done, so let’s get on with dealing with it and carrying on.’ That’s how I have treated my friends and all my ex-es, but not myself. I can keep secrets for other people’s sake while condemning myself for breaking a glass. It’s a warped view of life and wrongdoing and acceptable judgment.