Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
“Like the fella says, in
From the opening sequence of The Third Man, there is an uncanny sensation that something is not right. As a narrator casually opens up the tale, a shot pans across murky portside water, rank with flotsam and jetsam, and suddenly it becomes clear that there is a corpse floating amid the rubbish.
That uneasy feeling soon permeates the atmosphere, as the audience is presented again and again with imagery that is both haunting and unforgettable: the crumbling ruins of bombed-out buildings, shells of ornate architecture laying topsy-turvy in the rubble, plain mismatched furniture and coverless light-bulbs cluttering vaulting rooms of elaborate Italian design. The city is a showcase of post-war poverty struggling for survival amid the grim near-anarchy of crime and corruption, death and disillusionment. Shadows, fogs, and shafts of light obscure the viewer’s vision; cobblestones glitter like glass in the streetlamps and shadows of men loom deceptively as tall as buildings. Every shot, every line of shading and light, is just slightly off; the angles are just barely skewed, resulting in the distinct sensation that the whole dark and twisted world in which the characters are entangled is swiftly slipping off the screen. The queer zither soundtrack also strangely fits the setting: the local color and local intrigue seem equally tangled up in the music’s twanging, repetitious, changing chords.
This evocative setting is the perfect backdrop for director Carol Reed’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s tale, set in the post-WWII black market days of Vienna, about a bumbling, naïve American writer named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is offered a job in Vienna by an old school friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but arrives barely in time to be told that, at that very moment, the last shovelfuls of six feet of earth are being laid over his pal Lime.
At the funeral, Holly falls in with British inspector Calloway (a resigned, grim Trevor Howard) who, after buying Holly one too many drinks, informs him candidly that the police have known for some time that Lime was a vicious racketeer but were never able to convict him. Reeling and aimless after the sudden shock of death and accusation, Holly foolishly commences a one-man crusade to clear his dead friend’s name. He determines to investigate the “accident” surrounding Harry Lime’s death, at first suspecting foul play, but eventually unearthing a much darker truth about good ol’ Harry. This tale of deception and discovery is Graham Greene’s oblique stab—oblique as Carol Reed’s cinematography—at moral relativism, especially in the human soul’s perception of and reaction to the truth.
Holly sets the tone for this theme when Calloway first implies that Lime was involved in the black market. Holly’s reaction isn’t to deny the statement, but to interpret it in such a way that justifies Lime: that Lime was perhaps a small-time operator, trading tires or gasoline or cigarettes—just like everyone else is in the city, sure, everybody, in a small way—and that Calloway is a petty policeman with a vindictive drive against Lime. Calloway calmly reassures him that Lime was one of the foulest criminals in
Holly, on the other hand, is a hopelessly flawed character. He fumbles through his fool-hardy investigations, making mistakes that tip his hand or are even fatal to others; at one point he even gets himself accused of murder. He misjudges, misapprehends, and misconstrues his way towards the truth. His real problem, however, is more than simple American blundering or romantic naïveté. The real problem—indeed, the problem that confronts most of the characters—is that they find it nearly impossible to reconcile the horrible facts about Lime with their own perceptions of him.
The elusive and powerful personality of Lime is not buried at his funeral. It looms large and mysterious in the background of the entire film, and fills the mind and thoughts not only of Holly but of everyone who knew him or had to deal with him, including Calloway and Lime’s girlfriend, the depressed and lonely Anna Schmidt (played by the beautiful and intense Valli). His personality is shrouded in darkness, and for the first half of the film the audience has no notion of what he looks like. Even then, the first glimpses of Harry are—like the snapshots of his personality as seen through the eyes of Holly and Anna and Calloway—incomplete, swathed in shadow and questionable gloom. With time the audience gleans that he was Holly’s closest companion, a flippant and amicable man, a treasure-trove of useful facts, little tricks, and hints of humor. He was Anna’s roguish beloved, a charmer, light-hearted and loveable. He was their friend; but according to the police file, he was a fiend. They all saw him in a way which seems to contradict Calloway’s accusations. Who was Harry Lime? What is the truth about him? What is true? Is it, after all, just a question of perspective?
This problem, like Harry’s personality, is more than what it appears. “Stop making him in your image,” a pained Anna rebukes Holly, “Harry wasn’t just your friend and my lover. He was Harry. A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.” Anna perceives that Holly adjusts his memory of Lime to fit his own sympathies and emotions. She’s partly right: Lime hasn’t changed. However, what they know about him has, and so their judgment of him should. As they uncover the nasty and brutal facts about Lime’s racketeering, which caused death and irremediable harm to many, they are granted a glimpse into his real character. They can accept the truth, or reject it. Holly struggles with this choice, flopping back and forth like a pendulum, whether to side with the police for justice or with Lime for loyalty. Anna, for her part, eventually falls prey, in a way, to the sin for which she reprimands Holly. Her love for Lime borders on obsession—she absently calls Holly “Harry” when she is deep in discussion with him; she wears his pajamas, cries herself to sleep thinking of him. She clings hopelessly to her personal memory of Lime, without reconciling it to reality, remaining loyal to this illusion and ignoring the truth; consequently, she forever closes herself off from the kindness, love, and life offered her by others. She accepts only her vision of him—in other words, makes him in her image—and refuses to see the truth.
For the sake of this review, it is necessary to reveal a few plot points; I will not give away the ending, merely a crucial mid-way detail. If you do not want this spoiled for you, then please read no further.
This problem of perspective on the truth is most perfectly manifested when—in a sequence which is so beautifully filmed it invariably sends tingles up the spine—it is suddenly revealed that Harry is not six feet under. He is alive and well. Holly catches a mere glimpse of him, and then he’s gone, disappearing into the dark city streets once more.
Later, however, he is able to meet with him, and the interview seems almost unreal. Holly meets Lime at a Ferris wheel and suddenly the audience understands why Holly and Anna have such a hard time deciding where their loyalties lie. Orson Welles’ performance is superbly subtle and disturbing. He’s devilishly charming, charismatic, a pleasant talker, possessing all the gentle outward qualities of a true friend. But again, something is not right. As they ascend the tilting world of the ferris wheel, Holly feebly attempts to rebuke Lime, and Lime reveals that he is the quintessence of moral relativism. He throws open the door of the Ferris wheel, and points to the people a hundred feet below on the sidewalk.
“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?”
To him, they are only blots on the road. They aren’t people. It’s all relative; it’s all a matter of perspective.
It’s not until the final moments that both Holly and the audience catch a glance of Harry Lime in all his ugly reality. When the perspective, at last, is righted—through a brilliant chase sequence involving the sewer system of
However, Greene and Reed end the film with an eerie, queer element of ambiguity, along with a powerful déjà vu sequence, which not only leaves the ending open and questions unanswered, but ultimately reinforces his point. The men and women of his tale have trapped themselves by their moral relativism, locked tight in their mental habits of denying the truth in favor of the “other side of the story,” which is really a lie. They embraced relativism and ambiguity; and in the end, that is all they have left. Because they could not accept the truth, unambiguous, whole and entire, they cannot escape to freedom and love.
Monday, June 20, 2011
All of my brothers were trained from a young age to always follow some basic standards of chivalry: Open the door for people. Give someone else your seat. Let others go first. Naturally, I picked up on these principles, too; to my mind, it was simply a question of good manners. So, when a young gentleman I know offered me his seat at a recent gathering where there weren’t enough chairs to go around, my initial reaction was to thank him but assure him I was quite alright without one, as was perfectly true. But then I realized: how do we expect our boys to be gentlemen if we won’t let them be?
Catholic websites are overflowing with articles—usually by women—about how important it is for men to be chivalrous, and how sadly lacking in chivalry many men are today. (Clare Ryan has an excellent post about how we often forget that for a man, being a true gentleman entails so much more than simply opening doors for women.) But there’s another side to chivalry—the flip-side. As young women in society, we have a special role in being on the receiving end of chivalry. In a certain sense, in today’s world it is actually up to women whether men act like men.
Our culture is laboring under almost a century of feminist agitprop, and all sorts of strange side-effects are now rising to the surface. A student can get a degree in something called “Women’s Studies,” for instance, but there simply isn’t anything called “Men’s Studies.” Movies for the last 25 years at least have been full of women who can kung-fu kick their male companions to kingdom come, shoot straighter than them, and hold their liquor better. They bossily take charge of situations, immediately deem their male sidekicks immature and incapable, and occasionally swear to punctuate their “toughness.” In other words, they imitate the less admirable qualities of men. This cliché has become so ingrained in society that too often the stereotypes are accepted without question or protest.
It’s exactly this sort of situation that kills chivalry. If chivalry dies, it is our fault—the fault of women, at least in part. It is the fault of women when they usurp what is properly the role of men. When they push themselves to the front, and automatically take charge of all of life’s sundry dilemmas, they can impede the men around them from stepping up to the plate and being truly chivalrous and self-sacrificing.
Now, this requires a fine line of distinction. This does not mean that women shouldn’t have careers or management positions, or that a woman has to let a foolish man take the lead just because he’s a man. But it does mean allowing good men to assume the roles of leadership and of protection that come naturally to them. A man can’t step into his boots if a woman is already wearing them herself.Quite simply, women must allow men to be chivalrous by not getting in the way of their chivalry.
It’s sometimes hard to do this. A young man I know told me that he once let a girl lead him while they were dancing. “It was terrifying,” he said, “I never knew what was going to come next.” He had had a glimpse of the other side of the situation, and realized that women don’t have it easy. Women have to work at their role of receiving chivalry, just as men must work at their role of being chivalrous. If they don’t both fulfill their roles properly, the whole relationship, like a dance, doesn’t work. I’m used to being self-sufficient and independent. I am perfectly able to open a door on my own, carry moderately heavy loads, wait my turn in lines behind a guy, etc. But it is actually up to me—up to all women—to allow men to be chivalrous, or they never can. With practice, there are little things I’ve learned to do to help me pursue this goal: for example, waiting that extra second to let the fellow walking alongside me reach the door first, so he at least has the opportunity to hold it open for me, instead of pushing through on my own.
In My Heart Lies South, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino tells how she, an American woman, met and married an amorous Mexican and spent the rest of her life learning to appreciate the Mexican culture. One of the cultural standards to which she had to adjust was a certain old-fashioned chivalry in which the women did not insist on being totally independent at all times. Her sage Mexican mother-in-law, Mamacita, explained the situation to her, in a teasing tongue-in-cheek way:
“Men are not very brave,” she says, “Otherwise God would have arranged that they bear the children. . . . So it is up to the women to make them practice being valiant . . . Let them, every day or every week, do something that strengthens their will against pain or danger. . . The man who performs a brave act before a lady will love her very much, for she has seen him do it. But if instead, she pushes him away and acts with courage to save him from some physical danger, he will feel robbed of his virility, and he will never feel toward her in the same way.”
What Mamacita says is partly jest, but the lesson she references is very true. Men and women compliment each other; they have distinctive virtues that help them to balance out each other’s flaws. If we want men to be strong, admirable, chivalrous gentlemen, then the battle starts here—with us. We must examine ourselves and see if our lack of feminine virtues is failing to help them be true men. Life is a dance. Let the men lead.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Mr. Smith Goes to
King Solomon's Mines (1950) "Stupid waste, this safari. All of it! Half our supplies gone after that all-night stampede. Wasted! Waste of time, supplies, and lives." Ready for a change of pace? Here's a wild adventure of the most exciting kind. Stewart Granger (the dashing fellow on the right) plays a fearless hunter/guide/explorer in
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) "My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now." This has to be the most bizarre "Christmas" movie ever made. When a famous writer and radio celebrity breaks his hip in a small Midwestern town, he and his assistants must stay in one family's home and wreak havoc in their lives--because he turns out to be a selfish, cynical, and eccentric man. The story is unforgettable, the dialogue witty; Monty Wooley is brilliant as the curt and obnoxious writer, and Ann Baxter is also hilarious as one of his friends, a gold-digging, back-stabbing actress. The one rough spot is Bette Davis--who usually played fierce, troubled women--playing the antithesis of her usual roles. I'm not a
Friday, June 10, 2011
Stalag 17 (1953) "The first week I was in this joint, somebody stole my Red Cross package, my blanket, and my left shoe. Well, since then I've wised up. This ain't no Salvation Army - this is everybody for himself, dog eat dog." A typical witty Billy Wilder film: dark subject matter treated humorously. It's part black comedy and part drama, about American POW's in a Nazi prison camp during WWII who suspect that there is a spy in their midst, and have to find out who it is before they plot the escape of a condemned American saboteur. Bill Holden won an Oscar for the main anti-hero role in this, and boy, did he deserve it.
Rear Window (1954) "That's a secret, private world your looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public." A thriller from famous suspense-director Alfred Hitchcock; for years it was my favorite film of all time. A photographer (James Stewart, excellent as always) holed up in his apartment with a broken leg begins spying on his neighbors, at first for fun--until he suspects one man of having murdered his wife. It raises a serious moral question: Is voyeurism ethical if by doing it you prove or even prevent a crime? It raises this question--but doesn't answer it. A great movie, all the same.
It Happened One Night (1934) "I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants." One of the original and best romantic comedies ever made; along the lines of "Bringing up Baby," though less screwball. Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled brat heiress who runs away when her father won't let her marry the shallow aristocrat she thinks she's in love with. She falls in with self-sufficient, plebeian newspaperman Clark Gable who offers to help her on her cross-country trek in return for exclusive newspaper rights to her story. But of course, you can imagine what happens instead. This is very witty and lots of fun; Colbert and Gable are quite comfortable and even easygoing when they are playing off one another's personalities on screen, so that they work very well together and are able to somehow make this highly improbably romance believable.