Whither the Zither?
Continuing our season looking at life-sustaining classics.
Sometimes you look around at the best of the films of recent years, and you ask yourself how well they are really going to stand up to the test of time – almost as soon as it won the best picture Oscar, some people are already suggesting that Birdman's true place in posterity would be be as the answer to the pub quiz question 'What film won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that Boyhood didn't?' Will any of these films be getting re-releases in 20, 30, or 40 years time?
Some hardy perennials of the cinematic landscape do seem to have this kind of immortality. Touch of Evil regularly turns up as a revival, while equally wont to receive another outing on the heritage circuit is Carol Reed's The Third Man. (Clearly the message is: if you want your film to have staying power, hire Orson Welles as your bad guy – though this inevitably leads one to wonder why 1986's Transformers: The Movie doesn't figure more prominently on the art house circuit.)
Apparently there are still people around who haven't seen The Third Man (personally I've been watching it fairly regularly since I was a teenager), so here is how the story goes. Vienna after the Second World War is a dreary, bombed-out, desolate city, occupied by a coalition of international forces and in the grip of vicious black-marketeers. To this place comes American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), hoping to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime. But he is distraught to find Lime's funeral in progress as he arrives, and even more outraged when army policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) shows little concern over the death, proclaiming that Martins' friend was a gangster who deserved to die.
Martins resolves to clear his dead friend's name and solve the mystery surrounding his death, despite the warnings of everyone involved that he should just leave Austria as soon as possible – even Harry's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), doesn't seem very supportive of his crusade, although the two of them do perhaps strike up a connection of a different kind…
Very few films, classic or otherwise, have such a distinct identity as The Third Man, and this is partly a question of sound and vision: the film's all-zither soundtrack is justly legendary, while the streets, ruins, and sewers of Vienna are a unique backdrop. Uniquely filmed as well, as of course: the black and white cinematography of the film is by turns luminous and murky, as the story requires, while Reed's skewed camera angles are also unmistakable.
It's this aspect of the film that usually leads observers to link it, in some fashion, with the film noir genre, which was also enjoying its heyday during the late 40s and early 50s. But if The Third Man is noir it is noir of a peculiarly British flavour: there are no hard boiled detectives or femmes fatale here. Reed's protagonist is a deluded, somewhat clownish figure, and the leading lady is far more vulnerable than she is brassy. Not that there is no moral ambiguity here, of course, but this too comes from a slightly odd angle – no-one, ultimately, doubts the utter amorality of Orson Welles' villain, or that he is a vicious and unrepentant criminal, but both Cotten and Valli's characters find it wrenchingly difficult to condemn him. They both seem quietly aware that he is a more charismatic and capable person than either of them and – to begin with – defer to him as a result.
This, I think, is the ultimate source of the atmosphere of melancholy which permeates the film – or contributes at least as much as the bleakness of the setting. 'The dead are happier dead,' observes Welles' character, 'they don't miss much here, poor devils.' Welles himself certainly seems to be playing the happiest character in the film – all the other major characters seems quietly consumed by their own failings and shortcomings.
This probably makes The Third Man sound like a pretty heavy-going piece of work, but as well as an examination of guilt, loyalty, and lapsed friendship (perhaps even love), it also functions superbly as a thriller, and a remarkably witty one as well: you're never very far from a sharp line or a memorably weird character. Apparently the famous speech concerning cuckoo clocks was inserted into the script by Welles himself, as Graham Greene was at pains to point out in later years, but this film is in every way a collaborative effort.
But why has it lasted so well? Is it just a question of quality? I'm not sure; I think it may be. Certainly, this film – set, as it is, in a very particular time and place – has something about it which gives it some degree of universal appeal. Everyone has had their disappointments, I suppose, everyone has fallen in love with the wrong person at some time or other – perhaps everyone has pondered on the strange allure of bad people. The Third Man is about all of these things, and manages to tell an engrossing story about them which is also marvellous to look at. That's the basis of it, I suspect: the rest is probably simply magic, and beyond rationalisation.