Friday, April 11, 2008

A sublime brush-off

Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) achieves what few films do: a perfect ending. One of it's main charms is that it's wordless, and except for a brief cutaway, done in a single shot. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has just been complicit in the death of his chum Harry Lime -- played famously by Orson Welles. Lime is a reprehensible character and his death in the Vienna sewer tunnels is well deserved. Yet, nobody loves a narc. Not Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) whose contemptuous look in the aforementioned cutaway tells us all we need to know about Holly, or Harry's ex-girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) who Holly has fallen head-over-heels for.

For this scene Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker set up a camera and told Valli to walk toward it. Not a bad move when you're working with an actress of her sophisticated beauty and bearing. I can't imagine the average Hollywood starlet of today being able to pull this scene off. For one thing, they wouldn't be able to walk like this. Holly (and we the audience) anxiously watch as her figure approaches framed by falling leaves and the sounds of Anton Karas's zither. Will she stop? Surely, Anna will at least cast a sympathetic glance Holly's way. But no, our experience of this moment is the same as his. As quickly as her face comes into focus, it's gone. There will be no happy ending. Holly Martins lights a cigarette. What else is a man to do when his heart's been broken?

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