“I never knew the old Vienna before the War” – The Third Man and coming to terms with the post-war world

As The Third Man turns 70, we delve into what it tells us about Britain and the building of a new global epoch

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Cities rarely look as good as they do in the movies. The intoxicating power of the urban sprawl has been a focus of film classics since the dawn of cinema, from the Berlin underworld in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to the scum-ridden streets of New York in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece of British film noir, The Third Man, is similarly entwined with the city of Vienna. The ruined boulevards and subterranean passages of the Austrian capital provide a perfectly murky stage for a cynical tale of crime and corruption during the birth of the Cold War.

It’s a war-torn town with dark cobbled streets and racketeers lurking inside every shadow. The palpable crookedness of the environment is even felt in Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with dutch angles and extreme closeups fostering a constant sense of unease – accompanied, of course, by a timelessly evocative zither score from Anton Karas.

But The Third Man‘s Vienna is so much more than an atmospheric setting; it captures a changing world in a period of political and economic turmoil. The film arrived only a few months after the Berlin airlift; a time when the allied coalition which had defeated the Nazis was beginning to break apart. An uneasy detente had given way to open animosity between the Communist Eastern bloc and the capitalist West. As an occupied city in the former Third Reich, Vienna was at an epicentre of these tensions, and as such it provided a perfect microcosm of this post-war global order which was still in its infancy.

The importance of the film’s volatile political context is foregrounded in a brilliantly sardonic opening narration, provided by director Carol Reed himself. In character as a seedy black-market racketeer, Reed explains how Vienna had been divided into various sectors under the control of American, Soviet, British and French forces respectively. “What a hope they had,” he comments, “all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” The Third Man, then, is not just the story of a city, but of a whole new world which had been born from the ashes of the Second World War.

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Amid this unfamiliar geopolitical landscape, the film seems preoccupied with the role of Britain on the world stage, and how this once-mighty nation might come to terms with the newly emergent supremacy of the United States and the Soviet Union. Acclaimed novelist Graham Greene adapted the screenplay of The Third Man from his own novella, but made one crucial change from page to screen. His characters Holly Martins and Harry Lime, respectively the protagonist and the villain of the drama, were recast as Americans rather than Britons. This change had obvious commercial implications for a British film pitching itself to the US box-office, but placing two American characters so centrally within a European story also reflected the growing dominance of the US in world affairs.

Indeed, Holly Martins is not just an American citizen, but a writer of the most American of genres, the Western. As he barges brashly into the Viennese underworld with all the tact of a gunslinger, it falls to the chief British authority in Vienna, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard ), to act as his guide. Against the determination of the American, however, Calloway can only stand by and feebly offer advice as Martins wades further and further out of his depth. 

At the same time as Calloway’s sincere guidance is largely disregarded by the visiting American, the British officer also finds himself overridden by his Russian counterparts. The Soviet wing of Vienna’s international police are eager to deport Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czechoslovak national living under false documents, and Calloway’s protests in her defence go largely unheeded. Finding himself subject to the whim of more powerful and well-resourced rivals, Calloway’s predicament would have been familiar to British authorities across the globe at the time of the film’s release. Throughout the late 1940s, an exhausted British Empire had acquiesced to Soviet demands in Eastern Europe, granted independence to former colonies in India, Burma, and Ceylon, and indebted itself to the United States via the Marshall Plan. If Harry Lime is the third man of the film’s title, then Britain had become the third power, dwarfed by the economic and military might of the planet’s chief capitalist and communist states.

Despite this diminished influence, the British retain the moral prerogative in the world of The Third Man. Calloway is a stern but ultimately good-natured figure, upholding the rule of law but making exceptions wherever there is the imperative to do so, as evidenced in his kind treatment of Anna. Likewise, his Cockney enforcer, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), is an affable personality – a keen fan of Martins’ westerns and always courteous to Anna, even when duty requires him to raid her property. These values may appear out of step with the world around them, but the rarity of such ethical integrity is exactly what makes it seem so valuable. This is contrasted with the cocky self-assurance of Holly Martins, the nihilistic greed of Harry Lime, or the inhumane bureaucracy of Soviet liaison officer, Brodsky. Here, Greene’s script may be suggesting a new role for Britain within a world of ideologically opposed superpowers; neither as bold as the Americans nor as efficient as the Russians, but nevertheless a voice for decency and reason in a polarised landscape. 

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Carol Reed wasn’t the only film-maker to be questioning Britain’s identity in the immediate post-war era. Powell and Pressburger’s majestic 1946 fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, focused on the Anglo-American partnership which had emerged as one of the defining traits of the post-war West. But where that film had ended on an optimistic note of cooperation and cross-cultural romance, The Third Man strikes an altogether more bitter tone. At the film’s conclusion, Martins chooses to ignore Calloway’s parting advice to “be sensible”, and he is left alone in a foreign city with his love unrequited and a far bleaker future than when he had arrived. Perhaps it’s a suitable metaphor for the disappointment of the European post-war project, which had seen the rapid disintegration of the new United Nations into two opposed monoliths on either side of an iron curtain.

If this is a disheartening picture, it represents only the opening salvo of a Cold War which would persist for another four decades and trigger a series of protracted proxy conflicts around the globe. The role that Britain would play in this tumult was still unclear, and in many ways it remains so. As the The Third Man celebrates its seventieth birthday and the UK faces another crossroads in its relationship with the world, the film’s image of a belittled yet outward-looking nation within a chaotic world remains familiar.

Top ten films of 2018

This Sunday heralds the arrival of the 91st Academy Awards, and with it the interminable horror/delight of the annual movie awards season draws to a close. In honour of this fact, I’ve assembled a list of my ten favourite films of the last twelve months – and it’s been another fantastic year for film fans of every variety. Untested film-makers like Boots Riley and Bradley Cooper dazzled audiences with spectacular directorial debuts, while experienced masters like Lynne Ramsay and Paul Schrader returned to screens in stellar form. As a human being with responsibilities and limited time on this Earth, I can’t claim to have been comprehensive in my selection, but I nevertheless hope that I’ve distilled a varied range of the brilliant films which have graced our screens this year, and shed light on a few lesser-seen gems in the process.

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Dir. Chris McQuarrie

Far and away the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, the sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a masterclass in big-budget action cinema. Now approaching his hundredth birthday, Tom Cruise continues to astound as the world’s most charismatic crash-test dummy, but it’s the slick work of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie which sets the film apart from its competitors. The plot is a plainly absurd mixture of well-worn genre tropes and contrived techno-babble, but it works perfectly as a stage for the most awe-inspiring stuntwork and special effects since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s exciting, crowd-pleasing cinema which doesn’t require leaving your critical faculties at the door, and I can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next with his next two Mission: Impossible sequels, due for back-to-back release in 2021 and 2022.

9. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Dir. Barry Jenkins

Adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story which chronicles the black experience in modern America, in both its joy and its injustice. Following on from his stunning 2016 directorial debut, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has again demonstrated a knack for immersive cinema, pulling his audience through the frame into an authentic vision of 1970s Harlem. The characters who populate this world are compelling and full of life, while Nicholas Britell’s delicate score provides a sultry backdrop. The result is a deeply atmospheric experience which pays tribute to the human capacity for love and denounces our complicity in cruelty and prejudice. For a much more eloquent and insightful perspective on the film than I could ever produce, I heartily recommend checking out Tayler Montague’s review for Little White Lies.

8. A Star is Born

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Dir. Bradley Cooper

It’s not often that remakes are among my favourite films of the year, but there’s a reason A Star is Born is now in it’s fourth iteration. As an exploration of the music industry, its themes are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has offered a deeply affecting meditation on art, artist, and how celebrity can bring about both the making and the destruction of a person. But all this would be meaningless if the romance at the centre of the film didn’t feel utterly believable. Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are astonishing in the lead roles, disappearing into their characters and fizzling with chemistry during intimate moments as well as bombastic musical numbers. Significantly, the film’s tactful depiction of male mental health feels relevant and essential at a time when such conversations are much-needed.

7. Sorry to Bother You

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Dir. Boots Riley

In the best possible way, Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. It drifts between razor-sharp satire of modern capitalism and python-esque absurdist comedy – and often both at the same time. With shades of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is a consistently hilarious but damning critique of the consumerist rat-race in which we all live. Writer and director Boots Riley, a veteran rapper and activist but unproven film-maker, helms the film with a lightness of touch which results in an enjoyably surreal experience, despite the script’s earnest subtext. Constantly second guessing its audience, Sorry to Bother You is not the film you expect going in, nor is it the film you think it is after watching for an hour – and you won’t see anything like it this year.

6. Widows

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Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has never been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. His previous films have dealt with the Northern Irish troubles, sex addiction, and slavery, and Widows follows in a similar vein. The film confronts the issues of politics, race, gender, and violence which plague modern America, but all within an exciting and deftly executed crime thriller. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV television series, Widows masterfully follows the heist movie textbook, complete with a chalkboard planning sequence, a vehicle chase, and a last minute twist, but McQueen gives the genre a contemporary makeover. It’s probably his most accessible film yet, but that doesn’t mean it has any less to say. All this is supported by a magnificent ensemble cast including Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, and a typically aggressive score from Hans Zimmer.

5. First Reformed

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Dir. Paul Schrader

No one makes films about disturbed and reclusive men like Paul Schrader does, and First Reformed marks a welcome return to form for the seasoned film-maker. It’s a slow-moving and deeply contemplative film which stars Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small-town church who has become a husk of himself following the death of his son and collapse of his marriage. As he tries to reconcile his faith with the cruel and decaying world he sees around him, Toller finds a new and obsessive purpose upon meeting an expectant mother called Mary (no points for subtlety there, Paul). There are undeniably shades of Travis Bickle in Toller, but the quiet rural parish of First Reformed is a world away from the scum-filled streets of Taxi Driver‘s New York. More than a character study, Schrader’s script examines the role of faith and the church in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, and a discomforting sense of impending disaster appropriately permeates the whole film. What begins at an unhurried pace gradually builds in intensity until a breathless climax and the best cut-to-black ending of 2018.

4. The Favourite

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Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The reign of Queen Anne has never been a popular arena for cinema, and it feels appropriate that the idiosyncratic talents of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos should be directed towards this neglected era with The Favourite. As usual, he brings his subtly disorientating camera work and an acerbic script, but this time he’s joined by three fine leads in the form of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who bounce off each other with alacrity. It’s a subversive take on the costume drama; from the foppish absurdity of almost every male character to the liberal use of the word “cunt”, this certainly isn’t Pride and Prejudice. Although the results are generally hilarious, there are sudden and very effective moments of tragedy which are handled masterfully by Lanthimos and give real depth to characters who might otherwise seem caricatured. It’s also fantastic to see Olivia Colman receiving the roles and recognition she deserves as one of this country’s finest actors. Having followed her career since the days of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s difficult not to feel a peculiar sense of pride in watching her ascent to international stardom.

3. Cold War

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Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Probably the most difficult film of the year to find on Google, Cold War perfectly demonstrates the simple power of visual storytelling. Following the tumultuous romance of two lovers in Communist-era Poland, the film is an epic tale which spans across years and borders, as the two suitors drift passionately, and often destructively, through each others’ lives. Despite this tremendous scope, the film runs slightly less than an hour and a half in length, an admirable effort in brevity from co-writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski. Above all, he is a film-maker who understands the primacy of the image as a means of telling his story, avoiding the need for lengthy exposition or protracted dialogue. Each frame of the film is more beautiful than the last, but more impressive is how these images capture the unspoken intensity of true love and the cruel world which seeks to extinguish its spirit. The power of Pawlikowski’s approach would have been dulled  were it not for the subtle work of his two lead performers, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, who, with barely a word, communicate both the excitement and melancholy of love.

2. Roma

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Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

A loosely biographical tale of a housemaid in early 1970s Mexico City,  Roma is a study of both the personal and the political, and how these two worlds intertwine in powerful but almost imperceptible ways. The experience of a single woman, and the family for which she works, is placed against a sweeping historical backdrop of economic and social turmoil, without ever losing focus on the human drama at its core. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the central role, while the film around her is crafted with Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark finesse. Every movement of the camera is executed with a deliberate, almost ethereal omniscience, placing the viewer into an strangely voyeuristic role. As a Netflix production, Roma also represents a turning point in how major films are made and distributed; the much-maligned streaming service is knocking on Hollywood’s door.

1. You Were Never Really Here

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Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Eight years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay has again proved herself to be one of the finest film-makers in the business. Visually dazzling with a dark and uncompromising character study at its heart, You Were Never Really Here simply could not have been made by anyone else. Joaquin Phoenix is a brutish and enthralling presence as Joe, a violent enforcer barely clinging to his grip on reality, who must embark on a rescue mission into a depraved underworld he cannot begin to comprehend. Ramsay’s films have always had a preoccupation with the internal experiences of her characters, with their singular perspectives providing a stark new lens through which to see the world. As such, every shot in this film is filtered through Joe’s confused and erratic psyche, enveloping everything in a suffocating intensity. The effect is heightened by Paul Davies’ cacophonous sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s entrancing score, and it all combines into a sensory assault which is experienced as much as it is watched. It may clock in at a lean 89 minutes, but You Were Never Really Here is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about for almost a year.

Mark Kermode at the BFI Southbank

Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank is a brilliantly entertaining evening for film buffs and Kermode enthusiasts everywhere, although the uninitiated may find themselves lost.

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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the film critic Mark Kermode. Indeed, the influence of his books and radio podcasts are at least minimally responsible for the blog you’re reading today. Despite this mild obsession, however, I had only managed to glimpse Kermode in person once before, during a chance encounter outside a barbers in Falmouth. When given the chance to see the great man, and his quiff, live on stage, I seized the opportunity without hesitation.

Roughly once a month, Kermode hosts an evening in the BFI Southbank, taking up the largest screen in the complex for an hour and a half discussion of all things cinema.  Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank, as it’s formally known, is a loosely structured romp through the past and present of the film industry, including Q&A, video clips, special guests, and music.

As I assumed my seat seats, an air of enthusiasm was immediately evident. The room seemed to be a haven for the dedicated mass of film fans who had assembled, eager to hear their oracle speak. As one of the few first timers in the audience, I felt almost as an outsider within a peculiar cult. The show began with a few questions Kermode had specifically selected from Twitter, ranging over a broad spectrum of topics, from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death to William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III. It was a marvel to see the UK’s finest film critic in full flow, his trademark energy and passion pouring onto the stage and traversing an eclectic range of topics.

The first guest of the night was Hadley Freeman, Guardian columnist and eighties film aficionado. The pair discussed the recent Ghostbusters remake in mostly damning terms, contrasting it unfavourably with the 1984 original. They were quick to assert that the all-female reboot was by no means a failure, more an exercise in mediocrity, but their conversation nevertheless cooled my own expectations for the film.

Having had little idea of how the night would play out, I was delighted when Kermode welcomed the second guest, composer David Arnold, onto the stage. Arnold has provided the scores for five James Bond films, among a number of other projects, and I am unashamed to admit that his music has accompanied some of the most formative moments of my life. Arnold provided an animated presence, as his anecdotes often broke into wandering tangents and humorous asides. He was ostensibly on stage to make a defence of the 1985 “comedy” Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, an understandably guilty pleasure, but Arnold appeared most enthused when discussing the thought processes behind his work on the Bond films. Indeed, the highlight of the evening came as the composer took to a piano for a rendition of the song “Only Myself to Blame”, originally sung by Scott Walker on the soundtrack album for The World is Not Enough.

With the evening having flown by, it all came to an end following another round of audience questions. The show, admittedly, was not for everyone. The vast majority of the audience appeared to be seasoned regulars, and a certain level of specialist knowledge was required to stay on top of the discussion. More casual film fans may find themselves lost in a morass of Kermodian obscurity and inside jokes. For the well initiated, however, Mark Kermode will return with another show in September, and a ticket comes highly recommended. It was a joy to witness Kermode’s laidback charisma and somewhat terrifying knowledge of film trivia in the flesh, supported by a pair of interesting and eloquent guests. The rest of the world might be going to hell, but at least some respite may still be found within the world of cinema.

The Anatomy of a Scene – Goodfellas’ Copacabana

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The Copacabana sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is an iconic moment within the canon of popular cinema. For a scene so short and simple in its execution, its continued appeal is a testament to Scorsese’s genius, perhaps his greatest collaboration with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus. Indeed, twenty-six years later, new innovations have saturated the film industry with technically impressive camera work, yet the Cobacabana sequence remains revered; only around three minutes in length, it is often cited as a masterwork of cinematography and storytelling.

Single-take sequences are fast becoming a staple of mainstream cinema. In 2015, the commercially successful films Spectre, Creed, and The Revenant all featured extended scenes shot in what appeared to be solitary, unbroken takes (although often stitched together in post-production). Two years ago, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar winning comedy, Birdman, seemed to be entirely comprised of one continuous shot. Considering the prevalence of the Steadicam in modern multiplexes, what is it that makes Goodfellas worth coming back to after all this time?

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In essence, Scorsese uses his camera to tell a story. Technical showmanship should never be employed for its own sake; the camera exists in support of the narrative, and nowhere is this clearer than in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. As the camera weaves behind our two protagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), we follow their journey into another world. For Henry, it is a familiar one; he moves confidently and with ease, echoed by the smooth tracking of the camera behind him – our gaze never breaks away as one life transitions into another. Karen’s experience is altogether less assured – it is her first introduction to Henry and the unconventional life he leads. Much like the hubbub of the Copa’s kitchen, the shot is an assault on the senses, taking in exteriors, corridors, a kitchen, a dining room, and finally a table right next to the stage. In a film that enjoys feeding us a near-constant voice-over, this single shot tells us all we need to know without saying a word.

Of course, it would be a crime not to consider the technical achievement of the shot. The whole sequence, in all its complexity, was blocked, lit, and shot in half a day. Steadicam operator Larry McConkey has explained the difficulty he faced in blending close and wide shots within such a tight frame – it was this issue that necessitated the brief moments of interaction between Ray Liotta and the others in the hallway. Later, when Henry and Karen take a turn through the kitchen, they actually walk in an extended circle and exit through the same way they came in, which is hidden through well-timed changes in extras and scenery dressing. Michael Ballhaus discussed the struggle he faced in ensuring that every actor and movement was timed perfectly for the duration of the shot. Yet after only eight takes, cinema history had been made.

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Scorsese returns to screens this year with the long awaited Silence, but it remains my opinion that Goodfellas represents his best work. The Copacabana shot demonstrates that a story may be told just as effectively through action as with words or dialogue. It has always been my belief that Thelma Schoonmaker’s distinctive editing has had much to do with the iconography of Martin Scorsese’s films, but Goodfellas shows just how effective he can be without a single cut.