Greeneland at its most bleak and exquisite: The Third Man

Joseph Cotton

At the end of the Second World War Holly Martens (Joseph Cotton), a hack Western writer, arrives in Vienna on the promise of a job from his childhood friend Harry Lime. On his arrival in Vienna however he discovers that Harry is dead and being buried that very morning. Dissatisfied by the police explanations of what happened to his friend Holly starts clumsily poking around himself.

The Third Man is based on a Graham Greene story, but Greene was gracious enough to say that the movie is a better version of the story than the subsequent novella. Part of the reason for this was the presence of Orson Welles, adding both his considerable charisma to the film as well as his writing skills, most notably on the famous “cuckoo clock” speech by which his character explains his view of morality to Holly.

The novel is written from the perspective of a military police investigator Calloway (Trevor Howard). The movie, however, takes Holly’s perspective and communicates brilliantly his sense of disorientation in an unfamiliar city – every camera angle is slightly off-kilter – and of isolation – just about everyone speaks (unsubtitled) German.

On top of all of this the cinematography of post war Vienna, reaching a climax in the sewers of the city, is exquisite and the zither soundtrack is a stroke of genius.

This is a funny, beautiful, exciting and bleak work of cinema, replete with Greene’s trademark concerns of morality, Catholicism and betrayal. It is probably the greatest British movie every made and another contender for my list of greatest final scenes of all time.

Let My People Go: Exodus the Movie!


Otto Preminger (in straw hat) talking to Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman during the filming of Exodus

There is a story that one Jewish critic stumbled out of the premier of this movie and pointing to the audience demanded of Preminger, the director, “Let my people go!”

Having watched Exodus its easy to understand his reaction to being stuck in a cinema with little option but to endure watching this to the end. This is a film that takes its worthiness seriously and the result is a desperately boring affair. This is not helped by what seems to have been an artistic decision to keep almost all the action off screen. This helps from a propaganda perspective of not depicting the civilian carnage, as well as British military deaths, wrought by the Israeli Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel. But it doesn’t add to the entertainment value of the film. Only the prison break sequence does much to get the pulse racing.

The disputes on methods between Hagannah and Irgun are touched upon, but then skated over: the Irgun are portrayed as serene and thoroughly humane despite their adherence to terrorism. Strangely though the character based on Menachem Begin is shown as wholly untroubled by the King David bombing, which he ordered, while accounts suggest that Begin was in fact deeply affected by the unintended civilian casulties. Though this does not appear to have dimmed his ruthlessness in the course of his subsequent career it does indicate a deeper human conflict that would have been artistically interesting to explore.

Politically the film makes some interesting points, expressing hope for a sharing of the land amongst Jews and Arabs, though the reasons why this hasn’t happened are barely touched upon.

The acting in the film is a mixed bag: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J Cobb are of course consummate professionals. Sal Mineo and Jill Haworth as young refugees and lovers are pretty woeful, not helped by the fact that their characters are stereotypes. The cinematography is exquisite. The score is justifiably legendary and promises something much more than the director managed to deliver. In fact it is the score rather than the director that gives the film any emotion it has.

A film to watch perhaps from an interest in cinema history, perhaps from an interest in the portrayal of Israel in contemporary cinema, perhaps for an understanding of how Americans understand Israel. Not something to watch, I think, if you want to be entertained or moved.

A nice man, who was also a great man: Lincoln the movie

Aidan and AbeLincoln traces the last few months of the 16th president’s life, focusing on his effort to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery once and for all.

Many reviewers have already noted that this is a movie about the US political process rather than the Civil War – so anyone who liked The West Wing, or the political sections of The Wire, will almost certainly enjoy this. But the few brief scenes dealing directly with the fighting – muddy hand to hand combat between black Federal troops and Confederates, Lincoln and his son’s visit to an army hospital, and the aftermath of a battle outside Richmond – give a powerful sense of the horror of the fighting in that war and the weight that it bore on Lincoln’s conscience.

The cast of the movie is outstanding and it is difficult to fault a single performance: Tommy Lee-Jones and James Spader deliver scene stealing turns. Jared Harris and David Strathairn less showy performances but no less well judged. And Sally Field brings a great level of sympathy to the role of the often unfairly maligned, though undoubtedly difficult, Mary Lincoln.

The centrepiece in this movie is, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’ stunning performance as Lincoln. It is all the more powerful because it is so human: indeed part of Lincoln’s greatness arose from his profound humanity and capacity to relate on that level to some of his most intractable rivals. It is a lovely detail of this movie that one of Lincoln’s favorite approaches to relating to people, his witty anecdotes, are found, at times so infuriating by those closest to him: at one point Stanton, his War Secretary, storms off as Lincoln tries to defuse the tension as they wait for the results of a battle with his favorite story about Revolutionary War general Ethan Allan.

Of course, in spite of Lincoln’s efforts, slavery remains a huge problem in the contemporary world. The International Labour Organization estimates that a minimum of 21 million people are in forced labour in every region of the world today. I hope that movie ‘Lincoln’ inspires this generation of politicians to emulate just a modicum of Lincoln’s political and moral courage when they are doing their jobs, and to take positive steps to end slavery once and for all in our lifetimes.