Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Roadblock (1951)

“You’re a nice guy, Honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” Diane
Roadblock is a fair to middling offering in the Noir canon, made on a dime by Harold Daniels for RKO. Daniels's career was a largely undistinguished one and healthy helpings of schlock and camp were his meal ticket. Roadblock is a no-frills B movie without many subtleties, paint-by-numbers but moderately entertaining nevertheless. As we’ve seen with The Narrow Margin a shoestring budget does not have to equate unspectacular filmmaking but unfortunately Roadblock is hampered with a script that doesn’t add up and Daniels was not the man to rise above mediocre material. The dialogue is quite good but not even Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is up to par.

Roadblock’s plot line follows the well-known Noir trajectory. A straight-arrow insurance investigator crosses over to the dark side because of his love for a rotten dame. If you think you’ve seen it all before you’d be right. You have. Many times. And better. This film has all the classic Noir ingredients and obviously pilfers bits and pieces from more well-known films, such as Double Indemnity. It also borrows - very unconvincingly - stock footage of a car accident from High Sierra.
The best thing about the picture are the opening and closing sequences, the middle not so much.

The movie starts off with a bang. A man witnesses a deadly shooting and is taken hostage by the killer. The witness admits he’s on the run from the law and is willing to offer the loot from his bank robbery in exchange for his life. At the hiding place all of a sudden the “murder victim” shows up, alive and kicking. It was all a setup. Insurance investigators “Honest” Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) faked the deadly shooting to scare the bank robber into showing them where the stolen money was hidden. 
Interestingly our first impression of Honest Joe is that he’s a violent thug. In the end he will be just that and the “murder” foreshadows Joe’s descent into crime. 

Unfortunately soon the movie takes a nosedive. On his way back to LA Joe meets Diane (Joan Dixon) at the airport. Passing herself of as his Mrs. Diane cons the airline attendant into selling her a plane ticket for half price. And then seats herself right next to Joe on the plane, acting as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Joe is angry and calls her a chiseler who takes him for a soft touch. But Diane knows a sucker when she sees one. She knows his anger is just a front and she has him hooked already.

Joe is drawn to the dame like a homing pigeon the minute he claps eyes on her, but she makes it abundantly clear that she’s an expensive plaything. She has ambitions way above his pay grade. That thing between them would never work out because mink and ermine don’t come cheap and you can’t buy those goodies on a measly $350 a month insurance investigator salary. Apart from that she’s the personal property of mobster Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) who slithers around with reptilian grace and who can and gladly does supply her with the finer things in life.
Happiness can't buy you money shrugs the dame and Joe takes this to heart. To offer gold-digger Diane the lifestyle she is accustomed to, he comes up with a plan to rob the mail train for a million dollar cash shipment. His partner in crime: Diane’s cast-off sugar daddy Webb. Bit awkward but not a bad idea really. Then all of a sudden the movie goes sideways. Diane changes her mind. She doesn’t want money anymore, she just wants Joe. How touching. So the two get married.
Diane wants him to call off the mail robbery but it’s too late for Joe. The mob won’t cancel the job. After the deed Joe and his partner Harry are assigned to investigate the crime. Very soon Harry puts two and two together and sees that Joe was the inside man on the robbery. Joe’s not the only one who’s good at his job. The noose quickly tightens around his neck.

McGraw plays it differently here and maybe that’s what doesn’t sit well with me. McGraw could play both sides of the law, tough cop or tough gangster. Either way, it was deeply unwise to mess with him. But the emphasis was always on tough. What he couldn’t really play was suckers pining for a no-good dame. It’s out of character. He of the granite jaw and gravelly voice starts out as the guy we all know and love, a gruff and uncompromising insurance investigator who doesn’t stop at much to get his man. Then almost out of the blue he abandons his principles.

Mobster Webb says to him: 
“It took reform school and several jails to built my character, but you’ve been square all your life. Now suddenly you decide to steal.”
Perceptive. Joe going bad after so many years of rectitude just doesn't add up. His descent into crime is too abrupt and so is Diane’s change of heart. This being a B movie with a runtime of 73 minutes this picture - like so many of its kind - had to have an uncomplicated shorthand, it had to kick its story straight into high gear. B movies rarely had the luxury to dwell on their protagonists’s inner lives and struggles. But Joe’s epiphany comes too sudden. This is the first serious hiccup in the film.

Of course in Noir the hero goes bad for a dame. In typical Noir fashion it is suggested that beneath a character’s virtuous façade obsessiveness, irrationality and violence were lying in wait the whole time. In Noir crime is not an aberration but a temptation lurking in every heart. Anyone, in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything. Suddenly formerly upright Noir characters cross the line and see what they’re really capable of. Once the floodgates open, there’s no turning back.

But for this setup to work there must be an antihero who suffers the torment of the damned while deciding to go bad for a dame. We don’t get that here. The transition from incorruptible investigator to criminal is too abrupt.
Another aspect of Joe’s character is unfortunately not explored. How much pushing did it really take? Joe seems to take to crime like a duck to water. He may have been calculating the odds his entire life, we never find out.

Joan Dixon - one of Howard Hughes’s protégés whose career never amounted to much -  is very alluring and beautiful as Diane though without a doubt an actress of limited range. But she handles her role of icy temptress very well. 
Diane is thoroughly efficient. She’s not so much gold-digging as strip-mining and very good at separating men from their hard-earned money. She knows the effect she has on men.
Diane: “One day you'll want something really expensive which you won't be able to afford on a detective's salary.”
Joe: "Like what?"
Diane: "Like me"
Here we run into hiccup No. 2, the character of Diane. Eddie Muller called her “an intriguing spin on the standard issue femme fatale” in his Noir Alley introduction. For once I can’t agree with him. Diane and Phyllis D aren’t exactly sisters under the mink and that’s the problem. Her transformation from gold-digger to loving wife who renounces her gold-digging ways again comes too fast and is not quite believable. Right when Joe decides to risk it all in a harebrained get-rich-quick theme and win the love of Diane, she blows her femme fatale credentials to bits and pieces and decides she loves Joe for his beautiful, upstanding and unblemished soul despite his sadly anemic bank account. This twist feels false as it doesn't operate as a natural part of the overall narrative. The movie wants to have us believe that Joe breaks bad and Diane breaks good, all out of gooey love. It’s regrettably treacly. It stretches credibility to the max. Their change is never really explained. Character development is sorely lacking.

DVD Savant Glenn Ericsson is right when he says Diane’s character is almost unplayable. There seem to be several Dianes. Diane No.1 makes it clear she’s an expensive plaything and belittles, lures and rebuffs Joe because she considers him a square; Diane No.2 does a 180 after getting sloshed and crying into her martini at a bar for five minutes because it’s Christmas (!), renouncing a life of luxury to turn into a happy newlywed overnight. Did she get a lobotomy?

From then on too much time is spent on the happiness of the young couple and as such the pacing was off. This is a crime movie, I wanted to shout at the screen. It’s supposed to be mean and nasty. Some people liked the twist on the femme fatale trope, I like my Noirs dark.

In a way Noir’s irony comes into play. Joe really didn’t need to commit the crime to win Diane. However one interesting question remains. How creditable is Diane’s change? Webb is a bit more clear-sighted than Joe and warns him. Once the bloom of first love wears off, she’ll go right back to her old ways. “Once a girl gets the feeling of mink around her shoulders, she doesn’t forget it.” And my guess is deep down Joe is well aware of the fact. After all there’s the letter from another cast-off rich lover in Texas that she’s kept and who she occasionally mentions to Joe.

In the end the movie is not entirely successful. Still, it has its moments. The last scene with a high-speed chase through the dry LA riverbeds - one of the first to be filmed there - is very good. We’re almost waiting for the giant ants to pop up. They don’t, they hadn’t hatched yet. 

This is where the roadblock comes in, the dead-end marker indicating the end of the line. A none to subtle metaphor for Joe’s failed life that has reached the point of no return. 

The last scene is pure Noir and almost redeems the movie. The cops kill Joe in a shootout. After crying a few crocodile tears over his dead body, Diane simply and almost dismissively walks away from the scene where her husband has just been gunned down without looking back, presumably right back to that guy in Texas who still wants to marry her. I guess I’m just a cynic.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Split Second (1953)

The Petrified Forest meets Atomic Noir.

This Atomic Age movie is one the 50s best thrillers you've probably never heard of. A few years ago I saw it the first time and I’ve been singing its praises ever since. Split Second was the directorial debut of Dick Powell and it’s a very solid first outing. Unfortunately he followed this movie up with the camp fest The Conqueror which would later cost him and about 90 other crew members their lives through cancer. Clocking in at 85 minutes Split Second is a fast-paced little gem. It doesn’t boast any A list stars, but it doesn’t need to. The ensemble cast plays very well together. Keith Andes, an actor who didn’t leave a big impression on me in other productions, is in top form here. In fact everybody is in top form, the performances are good across the board. Especially Stephen McNally, an always solid actor who occasionally turned in inspired performances. The whole movie is incredibly watchable despite occasional shortcomings.

Split Second belongs to the Cold War era of Film Noir where a newly awakened fear of the nuclear bomb was seeping into the national conscience. The genre shifted away from cynicism, anti heroes and deadly dames to display Cold War anxieties. The bomb was a dark threat looming menacingly in the background, a threat that shaped American culture in the postwar years. A possible apocalypse was hanging over everybody’s lives.

For a short while after WWII nuclear power was promoted as the epitome of technical progress. There existed the overly optimistic belief that it would only be used in positive and peaceful ways, such as for scientific progress in medicine. Oh ye of misguided faith. The "atomic dream" fell quickly short of what was promised because the technology entailed a range of obvious snags, among them the slight dangers of a nuclear meltdown.

Until 1949 the US had been in sole possession of the atomic bomb. When the Soviets exploded one of their own the same year, the arms race between the two superpowers was on. Once the Soviets had their A-bomb, President Truman announced an accelerated program to build a hydrogen bomb. The first one was tested in 1952. Not to be outdone a few months later, in 1953, the Soviets successfully tested their first H-bomb. Dangers were becoming very clear very fast.

One of Newsweek’s bright lads saw the writing on the wall quite plainly when he wrote what many people were already fearing: 
“All the reports and all the statistics added up to one grim conclusion: In an atomic attack, the front would be everywhere. Every home, every factory, every school might be the target. Nobody would be secure in the H-bomb age”.
Limited warfare had become a thing of the past. Nuclear power had the capability to obliterate everything with the push of a button.
The 50s are so often called a time of paranoia, but it is not fair. Paranoia is an irrational fear based on no concrete evidence that the fears are true, but the threat of nuclear destruction was not only ever-present, complete annihilation was a very real possibility.

The age of atomic power also saw the rise of civil defense, the training of civilians to be prepared in the event of an attack. The public was urged to build fallout shelters and children practiced “duck and cover” exercises regularly in school. These exercises now seem quite laughable but it should not be forgotten - based on scientific data available at the time - that the blast from an atomic bomb was considered the worst part. The radiation threat, the after-effect, was downplayed because it wasn’t fully understood yet. We know now that this is not true and that there are no antidotes against radioactive poisoning. 

It would take a few more years for people to note that the government policy of civil defense and preparedness was useless and ridiculous. The Twilight Zone episode The Shelter (1961) offered criticism of the fallout shelter obsession, and then along came Dr. Strangelove. But that is a whole nother story as they say. By the time the latter production rolled around most people were well aware that there wouldn't be another day to follow if the bomb went off. 

From 1951-1962 the Nevada desert became the stomping ground for nuclear Government boffins who ran above-ground tests of atomic weapons which by the way is simply taken as a given in the movie without any moral judgment. In the uninhabited desert area everybody could do their dirty work unmolested.

Atomic blast as entertainment
The Atomic Age was marked by the strange duality of fear and fascination, by the belief in the good of nuclear science and the real dangers it included.
On the one hand people were living on the razor’s edge, afraid that everything could be over any second. On the other hand the Atomic Age proved to be a fertile inspiration for art, culture, design and entertainment. 
The atomic craze eventually expanded to include tourism. The Nevada test site was roughly 65 miles from Las Vegas which was already an attractive tourist destination. “Dawn parties” were held at casinos where visitors would stay up to see the above-ground tests in the morning. 

It’s interesting to note that a radio announcer addresses his listeners at some time in the movie: 
“We’ll try to give you ample warning so that you can get to your roofs and watch the flash from the explosion.”
Weapons of mass destruction as exiting entertainment. In hindsight we can snicker but this would be revisionist and unfair. As already mentioned, the effects of a radioactive fallout and the resulting contamination were simply not wholly understood at the time.

It would take the sci-fi genre to fully exploit the fears and ramifications of nuclear bombs. Political commentary was often left to sci-fi/horror movies that would feature mightily pissed off mutant creatures created by nuclear testing, for example Them!, Attack of the Crab Monsters and It Came from Beneath the Sea. These little movies served in their own humble way as a warning voice not to mess about with nature.

Two of the first cautionary sci-fi movies were The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World, which had contrasting views of first contact. While the former had a peaceful and benign race of aliens urging humans to control their use of nuclear power, the latter's angry title creature killed scientists in the Arctic. The film ended with the now-immortal words "Watch the skies!”, suggesting an interplanetary Cold War.

The dark world of noir had always been an ideal atmosphere to showcase fears and obsessions. As opposed to 50s sci-fi, early 50s atomic Noir dealt with the dangers of nuclear power and radiation on a personal scale. It was the 60s end-of-the-world scenarios that took the sledgehammer approach with their message-pushing that nuclear power could only lead to complete destruction. In Split Second the A-bomb is only used as a background threat for a handful of people, not as a device to wipe out all of mankind.

Split Second is a thriller that doesn’t need any giant mutant creatures and no commies either to frighten, only a bomb about to go off at 0600 in the morning.
Larry Fleming (Keith Andes), a reporter assigned to cover the latest atom bomb test blast in the Nevada desert, is yanked off the case when a bigger one comes along. He takes it philosophically: “Well, if you’ve seen one atom bomb, you’ve seen them all.” Murderer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and his partner Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) - with a bullet in his gut courtesy of a prison guard -  have busted out of prison and are on the loose. Their mute partner Dummy (!) (Frank De Kova) is waiting for them with a getaway car. Dummy has one passion in life, atomic superhero comics.

The fugitives decide to take the road less traveled, to a ghost town situated in the middle of a testing site where they want to hole up. As insurance, Hurley picks up a varied lot of hostages on the way. Apart from Larry there is tough-talking but soft-hearted Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling), a showgirl out of a job and out of money; Kay Garven (Alexis Smith), rich, spoiled, unfaithful and good-for-nothing doctor's wife on a cozy little weekend trip with a guy who’s not her husband, Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige). Then there is old prospector Asa (Arthur Hunnicutt) who’s been hiding out in the ghost town since WWI and simply stumbles onto the scene. Comic relief was an inescapable and often annoying fact of 40s and 50s movies but Asa thankfully stays just this side of outright irritating. 

Hurley thinks they’re safe in the ghost town as the area has already been cleared of people for the bomb test. This is when things get rather sticky. He didn’t know about the pesky bomb, but Hurley is convinced that he and Bart can make their getaway before the explosion at dawn though their hostages know they’re likely to be left behind in the blast zone. It’s the age-old suspense situation: will they or won't they get out in time? One of Noir’s favorite fetish items - the ticking clock - plays a big role, reminding us that time is precious and slipping away.

Bart needs medical attention, pronto. Asa doesn’t see the need for a doctor for Bart. Where he comes from - the past - they used to dig out bullets with broken beer bottles, no anesthesia required. 
Hurley though insists on calling Kay’s estranged doctor husband Neal (Richard Egan). Either he comes to the rescue of Bart or else his wife will require a lot of medical attention too. Everybody’s nerves are a little shaky and they’re getting shakier by the minute.

The premise of the (desert) hostage drama is nothing new but it always works. Parallels to The Petrified Forest and Key Largo are of course purely incidental. We know the setup but there’s no reason why Powell couldn’t put his own spin on a well-worn storyline.

Of course the forced confinement and hours of waiting give the characters ample time to talk, argue, navel gaze and ponder their fates. Confined spaces always create a microcosmos, containing the action to a single stage and a restricted environment. Here it is an old saloon where the feeling of claustrophobia is strong and the closed-in space offers no escape from danger. Fear strips away all pretensions and people start to show their real selves. They either grow above themselves or break under the pressure.

Split Second has one or two little - OK, OK big - potholes and implausibilities that don’t bear close inspection, the most glaring one being the ending. How does Hurley think to get away in the end with all the roadblocks? How does Dr. Garven get through them in the first place? Security seems to be a bit lax. Oh, and who the hell leaves hunky Richard Egan for Robert Paige?
I’ll let all that slide. That’s what selective vision is for. Works like magic every time too, trust me.

Just as Ace in the Hole, Split Second is another Noir beyond the City. The city in general provides a psychological and aesthetic framework for Noir but Noir is not inseparable from this environment. Dangerous ground can lie beneath your feet anywhere. Here we get a hot and dusty desert ghost town. The desert is a place defined by absence. The absence of water, vegetation, nourishment, infrastructure and life. It represents desolation, barrenness and death. Civilization doesn’t count for much in this setting. The illusory protection of society is stripped away and people are left to their own devices, left to fight for themselves. In a place like this it is the law of the strongest that counts.

Western ghost towns were former boomtowns that marked failed communities. When business - AKA the lure of quick money - dried up, the towns died. After WWII a different kind of ghost towns - now called dummy villages - were built for one special purpose only. As atomic test sites.
What we have here is a nice clash between the old and the new. The ghost town - aptly named Lost Hope City - doesn’t only symbolize a failed community but also foreshadows a city destroyed by an atom blast.
A terrifying new future has suddenly become present. It is as if our protagonists have walked right into one of Dummy’s atomic superhero comic books.

Keith Andes is good as Fleming. With an easy charm and a clear head, he knows they can only bide their time.

McNally turns in a great performance as sexy, dangerous and wound a bit too tight Sam Hurley, a ticking time bomb himself. Blasting away a gas station attendant, he makes a bad impression from the first and doesn’t improves on acquaintance. Murder and mayhem, it’s what he does the best. Interestingly he is a war veteran but one with a cold contempt for heroes and probably everyone else. He may have lost his humanity but not his wit and sarcasm. Larry asks him: “How many men have you killed?”, which Hurley smugly answers with: “Legally or illegally?”. Apparently he’s racked up quite a body count. Against the weapons of mass destructions sanctioned by the government though Sam Hurley seems just a measly small-timer. 

Unfortunately the aspect the psychologically damaged war veteran is not further explored and we never find out how Hurley became the man he is. He has a knack for getting under everybody’s skin. He riles up Arthur because he knows exactly Arthur doesn’t stand a chance against him. He knows that Kay is easy prey and takes full advantage of it and when her husband comes to her help Hurley tells him with a smirk: “She decided not to depend on you entirely.”
Only with Bart a real bond of friendship connects him. He has at least one meaningful relationship in his life.

From the first Kay is fascinated by the killer and makes it abundantly clear, even in front of her new boyfriend. “I’ve never met anyone like him”, she coos. Arthur is somehow lacking in the excitement department compared to the bad boy. Kay is a girl who covers all the bases, with commendable thoroughness. She’s running hot and cold like a cheap faucet with every guy who she thinks can offer her the most. Kay wants Arthur to play the hero and challenge Hurley. A surefire way to get yourself killed. Arthur doesn’t even live to regret his poor decision of taking up with Kay. He gets a blast from Hurley’s .38 for his troubles. Arthur loses his life for a dame who’s worth exactly nothing. 

Then Kay throws herself at Hurley with literally all she’s got, partly out of sexual attraction, partly out of fear of dying. She’s only too happy to go to the kitchen with Hurley, to make some coffee of course. With typical 50s subtlety when it comes to sexual content - a subtlety that is more like a sledgehammer to the jaw - the producers let us know what happened. We don’t know how long they’re in the kitchen, we don’t see what’s happening but when Kay emerges she looks a bit worse for wear. Hair out of place and make-up smudged.
In the end Hurley doesn’t want to take her along. He is no fool and knows a rotten thing when he sees it: “You’re a real bad dame…nobody could depend on you for ten minutes.” Smart guy. We almost cheer for him then. She’s such a piece of work not even a psychopath wants her. It’s the night of bad choices for Kay.
After that snub she tries it on with her husband again who’s come to her rescue, not because he’s still in love with her but because he’s that kind of guy. But she’ll trample on anyone to get out alive.
So often relegated to glamour roles, Alexis Smith brings a lot to the table. She is able to display panic and hysteria mixed with a strong attraction to Hurley very convincingly.

Dottie is the product of the slums of Pittsburgh, with a father who pickled himself in cheap hooch every night and a not so happy hooker for a mother. In the beginning she can’t come up with the money to pay for her food at the diner. But she doesn’t tell the diner owner that before a guy walks into the diner who will be sure to pay the 50 cents she owes. If we think she’s going to be the bad girl now, we’d be mistaken. She’s a down-on-her-luck good time girl, no-nonsense but kindhearted and gets some of the best dialogue in the film. Sterling plays street-wise but vulnerable very well. Under her tough exterior she hides a certain sadness.
She’s learned how to handle herself. Of course Hurley tries it on with Dottie too but she’s not so easy. 
"Now look, mister. You can use that tone on the Pasadena divorce case in there. I've cut my teeth on tougher guys than you.”
But she’s also not stupid enough to antagonize Hurley completely. She knows how that would end.

The World of Tomorrow
The ending is to me as as good as Kiss Me Deadly. The film ends literally with a bang. The bomb goes off, preceded by a screaming siren…one hour before the scheduled time because the jokers at the military incident room thought it was a good idea. In a last-ditch effort to save herself Kay jumps into the car with Sam and Bart. They’re trying to drive out of the danger zone while leaving the others behind. Regrettably they drive off in the wrong direction towards the bomb. Their car gets vaporized. 

And now we get another chunk of implausibility. Asa knows an old mine shaft just outside the town where the others find shelter to hide out. Talk about deus ex machina. Why didn’t he say this before? Never mind. When the survivors emerge after the blast, Neal Garven says grimly in a chilling assessment of the situation: "Well, let's take a look at the world of tomorrow." All they see is a charred wasteland with the smoking ruins of the town and a mushroom cloud rising in the background. It hits home.

The ending is supposed to be a happy one for our troupe though clearly knowing what we do now it wouldn’t be. Radiation is going to get them 10 years down the road. You can run but you can’t hide.

Still, even without full knowledge, this must have been a very eerie scene for contemporary viewers and one which must have struck a chord. The doom loomed large on the horizon.

Split Second doesn’t need mutant creatures to be a horror movie. Reality does just fine.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Third Man (1949)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Joseph Cotten Blogathon on September 5-7, 2018. At the risk of belaboring the obvious and saying what others have said before me and better, here’s my entry.

“I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm… I really got to know it in the classic period of the Black Market...Now the city is divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French…Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know. Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit.” Prologue
Directed by the now shamefully underrated Carol Reed at the height of his power, The Third Man is that rare breed of film where everything comes together to form a little miracle. The direction by Reed is brilliant, the script by Graham Greene is brilliant, the cinematography is brilliant, the acting is…you get the drift.

The prologue - spoken by Reed as omniscient narrator in a very off-hand and chummy manner - plunges the audience right into the grim realities of a story unfolding with bone-dry wit, sly humor and shrewd insights into the intricacies of East-West relations, which incidentally are purely Greene’s. In a subtle note of irony, the narrator himself is a dodgy black marketeer, part of the flotsam and jetsam that comes in the wake of vanished empires and conquering armies.

Mostly shot on location in Vienna - one the first British film to do so - the film has an authenticity about it that captures the appalling disarray of a Europe scarred by a war. No studio set could ever convey the destruction caused by relentless bombing resulting in rubble-strewn streets, crumbling buildings and gaping holes in the ground. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a thing of the past. Not even an echo of its former glory reverberates in the picture, we only see the remnants of a world and a way of life utterly destroyed.
“Reed made one key decision early – there would be no Strauss, no waltzes in his film. That Vienna, the Vienna which could imagine itself at the centre of Europe, was gone for good. Reed’s Vienna is a crooked city, a city shot with tilted angles, a city in which the cobbled streets are wet and glistening as if from melted snow; a city in which a few beams of light cut through deep darkness, in which the shadows are all exaggerated. … for Greene Vienna was a no-man’s land, a city on the edge in which the old values were in ruins, a city with no future” (Peter Wollen “Riff-raff Realism”, BFI magazine Sight and Sound April 1998)   
Amateurs...they can't stay the course
Vienna had been stripped of its elegance and splendor. What remained was decadence and rot, with a fatalistic and defeated attitude blanketing the city. Postwar morality was complicated, muddled to obscurity. The notions of good and evil didn’t mean much in the face of simple survival. “I’ve done things that seemed unthinkable before the war,” says one character in the story and it seems to be true for everybody. War changes all notions of acceptable behavior.

In The Third Man Vienna is a place of utter confusion, marked by its maze of alleyways, tunnels and strange staircases. A damaged city that mirrored the troubled inner lives of its inhabitants.

As many have noted, Vienna itself is a character in the story. The picture has a firmly-rooted sense of place. As an Allied-occupied city, Vienna was under the control of the four occupying powers Britain, US, France and Russia. Still trying to shrug off a post-war hangover, the city was now a border-zone stuck between East and West on the eve of another war, a cold one this time. Europe was a continent at the crossroads. Cooperation between victors already politically divided rose barely above frosty formality. It was a bitter reminder for people still celebrating victory that not all was well in the world. Like Germany, Austria was a country in limbo and in chaos, not knowing what the future would bring and which way it would go. 

A precarious political environment like that could only produce bleak and desperate films and was a fertile ground for the so-colled Trümmerfilme (1945-50), “rubble films” -  named that for obvious reasons - set amongst the ruins of postwar cities (Berlin, Vienna, Rome). Rubble films dealt with the war, Nazism, anti-Semitism and the dire conditions of the postwar period (The Murderers Are Among Us, Germany, Year Zero, In Those Days). If these films are Noir by generally-accepted genre standards is a moot point. They are that by their very nature, with a heart of deepest darkness.

The Third Man however transcends the Noir genre. It transcends the genre of the thriller too. It defies categorization. It is not just an exercise in bleakness with razor-sharp dialogue and lots of dark humor, it’s a film about loyalty, betrayal, love, loss, the nature of evil and making profound moral decisions.

The movie is a masterclass on style and atmosphere. In fact the cinematography is so good you could hang every frame as picture on the wall. Expressionist lighting, evocative shadows, rain-slicked cobblestone streets, the constant echo of footsteps in the dark and the slanting light from apartments create an atmosphere of sinister menace. Wide-angle and close-up shots distort faces into the grotesque, most notably Harry’s sketchy cronies. Faces that always look watchful and guarded, afraid to give too much away, to say the wrong things. 
What stands out most though are the constant canted camera angles, more than I have seen in any other movie. They suggest a world perpetually off-kilter, confused and out-of-joint. Nothing in Vienna is on the level.

The famous zither score - composed and performed by Anton Karas -  reinforces the narrative’s irony hovering between playfulness and melancholy. It is authentically Viennese. It’s the music you hear in the city’s cheerful Heurigenlokalen, wine bars. 

The plot centers on Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), Our Man in Vienna, a two-bit hack writer of dime-store Westerns with titles such as The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at Double X Ranch. He arrives in occupied Vienna at the invitation of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that Harry has been killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) of the International Police informs him that Lime was a black market racketeer responsible for the death of many people, Holly is unbelieving. He thinks Calloway is trying to frame his friend for trading cigarettes for eggs, like everybody else in the city. Holly starts questioning Harry’s strange associates and his lover Anna (Alida Valli) and soon finds holes in the accident story. Apparently there was a third man on the accident scene, conveniently dropped from most eye witness statements. Trying to piece together the narrative, Holly starts to hit the streets of Vienna hell-bent on busting the case wide open. It’s the single worst idea of his life. Turns out reports of Harry’s death have been greatly exaggerated and he is everything Calloway says. What’s more, as Harry’s friend Calloway expects Holly’s help in bringing Harry down.

Sgt. Paine contemplating the folly of Holly
Holly is outraged. His best mate nowadays is the bottle, well, right after Harry who he considers the best friend a man ever had. 
Calloway: “That sounds like a cheap novelette.”
Holly: “Well, I write cheap novelettes.”
It’s one of the few times Holly’s grasp of facts is spot-on. Naive, pure of heart and guileless, his perspective on life has been simplified to match the structure of the pulp Westerns he writes. Holly prefers moral clarity, a clear line drawn in the sand, the basic distinction between good and bad never in doubt. Obviously sensibilities from another time and place.
Holly sees himself as the upright Western hero fighting with good cheer for truth and justice and the downtrodden, in this case his childhood friend who he hasn’t seen in years. Mixing fact and fiction, Holly sees cheap plots and conspiracies everywhere. "The lone rider has his best friend shot unlawfully by a sheriff. The story is how this lone rider hunted the sheriff down." In his imagination Harry is the victim of unfair persecution by the corrupt Sheriff Calloway.

To confound the fish out of water even more, there is a constant stream of deliberately untranslated German that reinforces Holly’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land and adds to his bewilderment. Along with the audience he has to figure out what is going on. To his credit, director Reed played fair. Every crucial bit of information is translated for Holly and the viewer.

Unfortunately Holly doesn’t have any self-awareness. He doesn’t seem to understand that his innocent blundering can be dangerous for other people. Occasionally only one step away from impersonating Inspector Clouseau, Holly doesn’t remotely have the mental equipment or the moral unscrupulousness to survive the snake pit he's jumped into. He’s lacking the jadedness and cynicism of men who have been through a long and hard war. It is quite telling that we never find out what Holly did during those years. 
The film plays with the cliches of pulp fiction but turns them into something much more serious. Westerns may be useful moral guides in certain places but Vienna after the War was not one of them. It’s a setting that embodies complexities far beyond Holly’s simplistic mindset. With his quixotic notions of fairness and morality Holly - the proverbial Noir sucker -  is no match for a real Noir villain, or the morass of a new postwar world where hell is up and heaven is down.

Adding an indispensable contrast of hard-headed reality is Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard in one of his tough guy roles. Howard - “It’s Calloway, not Callahan. I’m English, not Irish” - is the epitome of cool here and almost walks away with the movie. A BFI screenonline article no less stated that Calloway has no sympathy for Holly at all, exploits his naiveté and is “a cold, stern authority-figure who lacks warmth and humor”. What were they smoking? Calloway is a man who’s seen it all but hasn’t lost his humanity. He’s hard-bitten enough to look evil in the eye and not flinch. If he’s not all warm and fuzzy that comes with the territory. With his sardonic humor and a voice that drips acid he’s a much-needed dose of vinegar. Exasperated beyond belief by Holly giving him constant headaches with his naive bungling, Calloway wonders how a wooly little lamb like him got lost in the slaughterhouse. There is an underlying gruff kindness and compassion in him. Like a good father, he encourages Holly to leave town to shield him from the worst of reality. He also tries to help Anna as much as he can, but the damsel doesn’t want to be saved. “Death’s at the bottom of everything”, says Calloway. Nobody can argue with him. 

As a British army officer Calloway, who's been in Vienna for a while, can't be bushwhacked. “This isn’t Santa Fe, I’m not a sheriff, and you aren’t a cowboy”, he says to Holly after Holly accuses him of framing his friend.
But a sheriff is exactly what he is. There’s a certain lawless frontier mindset galloping rampant in the occupied territory. Vienna is the postwar European version of the Wild Wild West - a decidedly unromanticized one though - where law is just an impediment to profit. Calloway is the man who’s trying to clean up Dodge and keep at least some semblance of peace and order.  

Much has been made of Holly as the ugly American who goes abroad blithely blundering through a foreign city and poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Dana Polan - who I usually agree with - calls him “a small, little man. A failure...he’s a buffoon from beginning to end” in his DVD commentary. And Tony Gilroy does the same when he says: “He’s just a shabby character all around...he’s just a slug.” What? I think those critics give Holly a raw deal. He is the film’s moral core even if he is clumsy and has trouble connecting the dots. He has one thing going for him: a sense of right or wrong.

Cotten’s acting throughout the movie is commendable, it is subtle and nuanced. He has to be bereaved, silly, stupefied and heroic at the same time. Holly Martins is not a flashy role and quite selflessly Cotten leaves the (acting) glory to Welles, a man with an enormous screen presence and magnetism. Cotten too had screen presence but never the overpowering personality of Welles. An underrated actor who made it all look so easy.

The movie may be named for Harry Lime but it’s interesting to note that he appears only three times in the movie with a screen time that totals about 10 minutes, speaking only in the ferris wheel scene. 
Welles at the time came fairly cheap. Though his name still had marquee value, Welles had fallen from grace and wasn't bankable anymore. A bucketload of commercial failures - amongst them Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth -  had seen to that. He exiled himself to Europe. He was hired by Reed but proved to be elusive and had to be literally chased all over the continent so he would show up on the set. For many of his shots a stand-in had to be used - including the famous reveal - with a close-up shot of Welles done later at Shepperton Studios in London. He also refused to film his last scene in the sewers of Vienna for hygienic reasons forcing Reed to built a stage at Shepperton. 
Welles was someone who occasionally had the tendency to over-act shamelessly. Thankfully, here he reigns himself in and gives a subtle performance.

He doesn’t show up until after the one-hour mark yet Lime’s personality dominates the movie even in his absence. In fact his absence is the invisible force that drives the plot. Everyone in this film is defined by his relationship to Harry. He gets one of cinema’s greatest entrances, materializing out of nothing when the tension has been built up. Welles called Harry Lime a star role: “They talk about you for an hour and then you show up. All you have to do is ride.” And steal the thunder from everybody else in the bargain.

Harry not only lives in the shadows but in a shadow world, in his own little fiefdom. Underground, surreptitiously out if sight and out of reach of conventional justice. The sewers are part of his fiefdom. Black marketers frequently used them as they allowed fairly free travel between sectors while bypassing the checkpoints above ground. 

When Lime finally appears - given away by a cat with a lousy taste in humans -  it is like an apparition. There is an almost child-like, impish and very seductive smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. His playful personality invites the audience to dismiss all the accusations against Lime’s character right away. A grave error in judgment.

Harry is not just embroiled in run-of-the-mill shady business dealings. He stole penicillin from hospitals, diluted it and sold it back on the black market. This adulterated penicillin crippled and deformed children and “the lucky children died, the unlucky ones went off their heads.” 
High up in a ferris wheel cabin - in every sense of the word looking down on humanity - Harry explains to Holly his philosophy with utter callousness and nonchalance.
“Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs - it's the same thing.”
“Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”
For Harry evil has to get credit for the good it often spreads in its wake though Harry just gets down to the important basics. His reasons for murder are purely economic. Always ready with a glib insouciance, there’s not a shred of conscience in him. Other people's lives do not matter. He’s a sick little puppy.

That we can’t hate Welles is simply due to his brilliance, he manages to almost capsize the film with his charisma. And that’s the trouble with Harry. Lime is one of the most likable crooks we have ever encountered. He should be locked up in the psych ward as a nut job, instead he comes off as a little rascal. To quote another movie: “The Devil is most dangerous when he’s being pleasant”. The Devil gets the best lines too, delivered with attractive and self-deprecating irony. Sociopathy as charming quirk. The face of evil is utterly banal, almost benign, a metaphor for the moral breakdown of Europe.
Harry has simply made his peace with the devil. He has consciously embraced evil, as a necessity, as a means to an end.

He is a man who casts a long shadow, in every way. His friend admires him, his cronies worship him and his lover remains faithful to him even after his “death”. 
In one of his more lucid moments Holly notices: “Harry is laughing at fools like us all the time” and he’s right. Harry has always been a parasite. Holly in his naiveté just took it as youthful exuberance.

Nothing in this film is as it appears. Character motivations are in the dark, there are false identities, mixed-up names and double and triple crosses galore. The beauty of this movie is that it studiously avoids to give us clear answers, one-dimensional interpretations or an easy way out. The third man turned out to be Harry Lime but Harry was nothing more than an illusion.

We are puzzled by Anna’s unwavering loyalty to him. Anna is from Czechoslovakia, a Soviet-held territory, living in the Western Zones on a forged passport that Harry procured for her. The Russians know it and would love to “repatriate” her. A death sentence by any other name. Repatriation by the Soviets meant labor camps or execution.
For Harry she’s just a means to an end. When the need arises, he uses her as a bargaining chip and sells her out to the Russians so they will further harbor him in their sector.

The first time we see Anna she’s on stage acting in a comedy. “I don’t play tragedy” she says. A blatant lie. She is one of the most melancholy and fatalistic heroines I have ever seen on film. Anna asks nothing of life. She knows dreams and hopes don’t stand a chance in this world. She seems to be in a near-constant catatonic state. She’s not just quiet and reserved, it is as if she has emotionally shut down after what she’s been through. Some critics took this for woodenness on the actress’s part but I think Valli plays it exactly right. She showed the same kind of mystery and impassiveness in The Paradine Case. There is a quality of stillness about her that can barely hide strong undercurrents of emotions. She never tells us - or Holly - what she did to survive the war but we can take a good guess. It’s all there in her world-weary attitude. 

In a way her loyalty to Harry is touching and commendable but there’s also the point that she’s loyal to a psychopath. Even when she finds out what he’s done, she stands by him, choosing love over humanity. “A person doesn’t change because you find out more about him” she says which is of course absolute nonsense. It seems Anna tries to separate Harry’s personal nature - his essence so to say - from his actions as if both have nothing to do with each other. Her whole-hearted acceptance of Harry’s evil makes her a collaborator. In fact it’s monstrous.

Many have criticized Holly for betraying his friend in the end. What those critics seem to forget is that Harry - before Holly “betrayed” him - had already betrayed everybody he ever came in contact with. Holly at least can critically reflect on friendship as a virtue and reject it if the price for it is too high. Being a friend does not have to mean sanctioning everything a friend does.

In the end the woolly little lamb becomes Harry’s nemesis and executioner. Holly is very reluctant to rat out his friend but the point of no return comes when Calloway makes Holly look at the effects of the diluted penicillin in the hospital. He finally agrees to be Calloway’s “dumb decoy duck” and help catch his friend. It is his duty to humanity, though it is nothing he can ever feel good about.

Calloway and his men finally close in on Harry and corner him in the city’s cavernous sewer system. In what is a bit of obvious symbolism, Harry is equated with a rat, hence the sewer. We see closeups of Lime's sweaty face, desperatly looking for a way out. In this instance we feel sympathy with the devil - now a hunted man - because the camera presents him as such, chased through long, echoing and empty sewer vistas. After he’s shot, his fingers grasp through a grating for freedom - it’s futile though, there is no escape. Mortally wounded, Harry nods to Holly, pleading for a quick release. It is Holly’s last act of friendship. He betrayed Harry out of duty and killed him out of kindness.

Holly’s cowboy innocence is forever lost, laid to rest in the sewers of Vienna with the mercy killing of his friend. This is what’s called a moral minefield. 

The film comes full circle and ends as it began: in a cemetery at Harry’s funeral. Autumn leaves are falling, always a sign for sadness and the ending of a life-cycle, in this case Holly’s and Anna’s relationship. Holly waits for Anna and his happy end at the end of a long road expecting her to forgive. But he’s tilting at the windmills of hopeless love. She simply walks past Holly without even sparing him a glimpse, her judgment of what she considers his betrayal. "They have a name for faces like that”. She takes loyalty to the point of self-destruction.

The end of the affair that never began
And once more Holly has to face the harsh truth that life isn't one of his Westerns: sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t make things better and killing the bad guy isn’t the end of it. Harry is dead, the past is dead but there is no future for Holly and Anna. Holly had good intentions and he did the right thing but Mae West knew it all along. Goodness has nothing to do with it. 

What remains is an achingly sad ending with a solitary figure on an empty road whose victory does't count for much. It just cost him everything. His friend, his love, his simple world-view and his innocence. Maybe Holly has gained some wisdom, some understanding beyond the world of his novelettes, but that is cold comfort.

Roger Ebert phrased it perfectly: “The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of CasablancaCasablanca is bathed in the hope of victory…” The Third Man is bathed in bitter disillusionment. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of Holly’s stories anymore.