Christy and I watched Carol Reed's The Third Man last night, courtesy of her new Netflix membership. I first (and last) saw this movie five years ago at the AFI, and while I've remembered my great admiration for it, I had with only a few exceptions forgotten exactly why I found it so charming.
I was reminded instantly by the opening scene, a montage of postwar Vienna accompanied by wry narration from a jaded British observer (cop or criminal? Trevor Howard's wonderful Major Calloway or some anonymous racketeer? It's difficult to say), a bemused and immediately seductive introduction. For all its dark subject matter, this is a terribly funny movie, one suddenly punctuated by tense set pieces that have justly entered the cinematic collective memory - an angry mob led by a small toddler, a chase through the Vienna sewers. The joy of re-viewing this movie after a five-year gap is that I get to rediscover those staccato rhythms.
I'm still most awed by the one scene I hadn't forgotten, the famous encounter on the Ferris wheel, not simply because of the speech the antagonist delivers or the threat he poses to the hero, but because of the effortless, elegant means by which the scene dramatizes its own narrative structure. The action rises and falls with the wheel's motion, with the moment of greatest danger (physically and, if the hero chooses wrongly, morally) occurring at the car's zenith. Cap it off with a pithy, witty, completely amoral speech about Renaissance Italy and the cuckoo clock and you've got a classic.
But what lingers with me the day after is the movie's sly, lighthearted commentary on the postwar culture debate. The hero, Holly Martins, is a washed-up writer of pulp westerns of a particularly trashy sort ("Dinner at the Double-X Ranch," he says, and then, recalling his slide into utter career degradation, he corrects himself - "Raunch") but except for a few lines of dialogue this does not elicit the kind of self-referential metaplot you'd expect in any movie with such a character written after 1979.
Instead, he lands an invitation from a rather batty British cultural attache to speak about "The Modern Novel" and "The Crisis of Faith." Trapped in a room full of European intellectuals who ask rather facile questions about his opinions of stream of consciousness and Joyce (can this be all the post-war, pre-"theory" intellectuals concerned themselves with, the dispensation of opinions?), Martins stalls and stammers and thoroughly disappoints his audience. When he says his greatest influence is Zane Grey, the cultural attache assures them he's joking.
So where's the sly and lighthearted commentary? The Third Man is itself a popular entertainment, a product of the studio system and not of autonomous auteurism (despite its screenplay by Graham Greene, its expert direction by Reed, and its casting the most archetypal American auteur of all time), yet it grazes across issues far more profound than any of the trivial hierarchies of taste the intellectuals invite Martins to construct. This is not, Greene stressed, a movie "about" politics in postwar Europe, although it finds much drama in the uneasy power-sharing between Britain and Russia, allies who can no longer trust each other, and in the chaos generated by the arrival of a clueless, naive, easily outraged but fundamentally decent American who blithely tramples across these invisible boundaries.
However, those political dimensions - even the janus-faced presentation of the American character - are ultimately only window-dressing. They do not make the movie "serious" or "deep"; they merely deepen its already serious examination of love and friendship, innocence and maturity, misplaced loyalty and necessary betrayal.
Which makes the scene with the British Cultural Relations Lecture Series that much more ironic. The Third Man implicitly rejects the fruitless, autoerotic tastemaking of the BCRLS, offering itself as counterexample. The movie is - no, not middlebrow, for there's no element of pretense here, nor any anxiety about its place (whatever that place should be) in the cultural hierarchy - entirely unconcerned with the old, false belief that a film cannot be both entertaining and rich with meaning.