Friday, 29 April 2011

The Third Man: 1949

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Many people consider The Third Man (1949) the Greatest British Film Ever Made, though its Britishness is complicated. It's one of the few British films that deserves to stand alongside the great classics of international cinema. It's a reminder that British cinema flourished in the years immediately after World War II. Never before or since has there been such a glut of high-quality, commercially successful movies produced in this country. Between 1944 and 1949, British-made films included Henry V (1944), Brief Encounter (1945), A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations (both 1946), Brighton Rock (1947), The Red Shoes, Hamlet,Oliver Twist, The Fallen Idol (all 1948) and Kind Hearts and Coronets(1949). This was the UK's one and only cinematic 'golden age'.

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What's striking is how many of these famous and accomplished films were associated with literary prestige. Alongside the adaptations ofShakespeare and Dickens were films written, or based on stories by, rising literary stars - Noël Coward in the case of Brief Encounter, Graham Greene in the case of Brighton Rock, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. But, unlike many literary adaptations today, so often dewy-eyed and technically unadventurous ventures in 'heritage', these films are cinematically accomplished too. They're also edgy and complex in tone, reflecting all the flux and uncertainty of a country recovering from war and adjusting to a new era.
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The Third Man is a case in point. Set in post-war Vienna, it's a thriller about black marketeering and murder, whose lightness and wit combines with a sense of existential crisis brought on by the horrors of the conflict. Its richness comes from this combination - it's both a popular entertainment and a profound exploration of moral choice.
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It's great cinema too, built on the rock-solid foundation of Graham Greene's world-weary script. Directed by Carol Reed, at the time regarded as one of the two or three greatest film-makers in the world,The Third Man is one of those films that's fixed in the collective imagination. It would be difficult to find someone who didn't recognise the film's atmospheric, sinister vision of Vienna and its zither music. And it has one of the most famous scenes in cinema - when the anti-hero Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, who is believed to be dead, appears without warning in a doorway, late at night.

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Published by


Volume 16, No.189, September 1949, page 159


The basis of The Third Man is melodrama, but its mood is less precise. Its story is not particularly exciting - sinister and chilling, rather: emphasis is on character and atmosphere, not action, the intrigues and concealed horrors of post-war Vienna. Graham Greene's script tells the story of Martins, an engaging but rather seedy American writer of western stories, who arrives in Vienna to work for his friend, Harry Lime. He is told by a cold, disillusioned British police officer that Lime, a notorious racketeer, has been killed in a street accident. Unbelieving, Martins begins to track down all those who knew his friend: the lonely, frightened actress with forged papers who was in love with him; two acquaintances, the effete Kurtz and the shifty Popescu, who witnessed the accident; his porter and his doctor. These investigations lead him to the heart of seaminess and corruption in Vienna, to the discovery that Lime (a disarmingly shameless scoundrel) is still alive, to a struggle with his conscience which ends with the eerie pursuit of his friend, who most aptly retreats to the sewers of the city.

Although much of the film was shot on location in Vienna, it does not give an intimate picture of the city. The dead-looking streets with their piles of bombed masonry, the interiors with relics of splendour, the half-empty cafes and the enormous, glistening sewers (all most atmospherically photo-graphed by Robert Krasker), seem to exist in a sad, decaying no-man's-land. The melancholy scene is heightened from the first by the brilliant use of zither music with its relentless, jangling tunes.

By the side of this lost, dislocated city, the human beings with their shabby intrigues and miseries are almost insignificant. At the end, they fade back into the shadows and are gone completely. But the impression left by the film is lasting and powerful, because the characters are sharply created and well-acted: Trevor Howard particularly good as the British officer, Welles magnetic in the small role of Lime, Joseph Cotten catching exactly the moodiness and uncertainty of Martins, Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger excellent as Kurtz and the porter. Only Valli, as the actress, is rather negative, and one feels her relationships with both Lime and Martins are too thinly conveyed.

By the very nature of its settings and story, there are occasional reminiscences of Lang and Hitchcock, but there is nothing borrowed or imitated. Stylistically, The Third Man is Reed's most impressive film. If you dislike unremitting objectivity, if you insist that films should make a more personal statement, you will be dissatisfied with it and admire only its controlled perfection of technique. But as an analyst of mood and situation, Reed is practically unequalled today, and it is unjust, I think, to label him simply a technician without emotion since his style is so clearly adapted to serve this acute, deliberately impassive attitude.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

Carnaby Street W1

Carnaby Street is a pedestreanised shopping street in London, located in the Soho district, near Oxford Street and Regent Street. It is home to numerous fashion and lifestyle retailers, including a large number of independent fashion boutiques. Streets intersecting, or meeting with, Carnaby Street are, from south to north, Beak Street, Broadwick Street, Kingly Court, Ganton Street, Marlborough Court, Lowndes Court, Fouberts Place, Little Marlborough Street and Great Malborough Street. The nearest London Underground station is Oxford Circus (on the Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines).

Historically, Carnaby Street derives its name from Karnaby House, located to its east and originally erected in 1683. It is not now known why the house was so called. The street was probably laid out in 1685 or 1686. First appearing in the ratebooks in 1687, the street was almost completely built up by 1690 with small houses. A market was developed in the 1820s; in his novel, Sybil (1845), Disraeli refers to "a carcase-butcher famous in Carnaby-market".

In 1934, Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Manning opened the Florence Mills Social Club, a jazz club which became a gathering spot for supporters of Pan-Africanism. 1958 saw the first boutique, His Clothes, opened in Carnaby Street by John Stephen (after his shop in Beak Street burned down) and was soon followed by I was Lord Kitchener's Valet, Kleptomania, Mates, Ravel, and others.

By the 1960s, Carnaby Street proved popular for followers of both the Mod and Hippie styles. Many independent fashion boutiques, and designers such as Mary Quant, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin Lord John, Merc, Take Six, and Irivine Sellars were located in Carnaby Street as well as various underground music bars such as the Roaring Twenties in the surrounding streets. With bands such as Small Faces, The Who, and Rolling Stones appearing in the area to work (with the legendary Marquee Club located round the corner in Wardour Street), shop, and socialize, it became one of Swinging London's coolest destination associated with the Swinging Sixties.

Carnaby Street c.1966

The Carnaby Street contingent of Swinging London stormed into North American and international awareness with the April 15, 1966 publication of Time Magazine's cover and article that extolled this street's role:

"Perhaps nothing illustrates the new swinging London better than narrow, three-block-long Carnaby Street, which is crammed with a cluster of the 'gear' boutiques where the girls and boys buy each other clothing...

In October 1973, the Greater London Council pedestrianised Carnaby Street. Note that the pedestrianisation was only partial i.e. taking place between 11 am and 8 pm daily. A comparison of before and after number of pedestrians entering the pedestrianised area indicated a 30% increase in pedestrian flows into Carnaby Street as a result of the pedestrianisation. A campaign commenced early in 2010 to call for a similar exercise to be undertaken in the adjacent area of Soho.

There are two W estminster City Council green plaques on Carnaby Street: the first can be found at 1 Carnaby Street and is dedicated to fashion entrepreneur John Stephen, who was responsible for beginning the Mod fashion revolution here. The second plaque, located at 52/55 Carnaby Street, is dedicated to the Mod pop group The Small Faces and their manager Don Arden.

Carnaby Street was an already well-enough established phenomenon to be satirised by the 1967 film Smashing Time. One of the songs, entitled 'Carnaby Street', features the lyric: You'll pay for the gear on display to appear on the scene/ It's no good being mean/ They'll have your every bean.

In 1966 Harry Fox and Henry Moss together opened the doors of Lady Jane, the first ladies' fashion boutique in the street, to the world. They soon parted company and Harry Fox went on to add Lady Jane Again, Lady Jane's Birdcage, a souvenir shop and a men's wear shop, Sir Harry, to his empire. Stars from around the world made Lady Jane a must see on their trips to London, including Jane Mansfield who arrived in a blaze of publicity. Harry Fox, the president of the Carnaby Street Trading Association, lobbied local government to have the first sign, 'Carnaby Street Welcomes The World' hung high above the street, and later ensured the street was pedestrianised to make it easier to find and enjoy.

In 1969, Peggy March recorded an album called In der Carnaby Street, with a hit song of the same name.

There is a song by The Jam called "Carnaby Street", written by bassist Bruce Foxton. It was the B-side of single "All Around the World", released in the UK on 8 July 1977, reaching a chart position of number 13. It never appeared on any studio album, but can be found on the collected works of The Jam boxset Direction, Reaction, Creation.