Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Third Man (1949)

     The other day, I was thinking of my favorite movie soundtracks ever. And I came to the conclusion that if I made a list of my favorites, “The Third Man” would be at the top. A 1949 film set in post-WWII Vienna, the entire soundtrack is performed by one man on a zither, a European stringed instrument. Look it up. The film itself is a film-noir mystery, filled with corruption, murder, lost love, and ambiguity, right up to the very end. So aside from the music, and the stunning camerawork, what is there to appreciate about “The Third Man”? We’ll get to that in a second.

     “The Third Man” starts in 1940’s Vienna, where Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a poor, American writer of “cheap novelettes” has been hired by his friend Harry Lime to come work for him. But when Holly arrives, he finds that Harry has been hit by a car very recently and killed. His funeral is that day. Holly goes and finds several people that he’ll meet in the coming days: Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s lover; Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) of the British Patrol; Doctor Winkel (Erich Ponto), Harry’s medical advisor; and Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), another of Harry’s friends. And right from the beginning, Holly starts suspecting that something’s up.

     Calloway tells Holly, to his disbelief, that Harry was involved in a racketeering scheme. The next day, Holly finds Kurtz and talks to him about the accident. But Kurtz tells Holly that Harry was able to speak just before he died; the porter (Paul Hörbiger) at Harry’s hotel told Holly earlier that Harry was killed at once. Holly then finds Anna and talks to her, and she tells him that Harry was hit by his own driver, and his doctor and Kurtz were at the scene. Holly then talks to Winkel, who says he cannot give Holly any more information. Holly gets more and more suspicious.

     But after Holly gets on Calloway’s case about accusing a dead man of racketeering, Calloway gives Holly evidence of Harry’s scheme of diluting penicillin and selling it to patients, killing them. This was one of the many black-market schemes in Vienna after World War Two. And Holly, depressed and drunk, doesn’t know what to do. Then he walks down the street and finds somebody hiding in an alley. It’s Harry (Orson Welles). Holly, after a lot of chasing, finally gets Kurtz and Winkel to send Harry to him, and they meet at a Venetian amusement park. Atop a Ferris wheel, Holly interrogates Harry about his penicillin scheme. At the very top of the wheel, Harry points down to the people below and tells Holly:

HARRY: Look down there. 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? …Like the fellow said: in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!

     Bit of trivia: that last part was adlibbed by Welles. Anyway, yeah, what a pessimistic little monologue. And that pessimism sets the tone for the film’s third act. Holly, who has been slowly falling in love with Anna, is rejected by her because he has agreed to help Calloway catch Harry. And in a historic, beautiful chase sequence in the sewers of Vienna, Harry shoots Calloway’s partner, Holly shoots Harry, and after Harry’s funeral, Anna walks past Holly, never speaking to him again and causing him to miss his flight back to the United States.

     Very rarely have I written about a film on “Reel Christianity” where I picked out an idea from the Bible that contradicted what the movie actually said. This is one of them. There is a post-war, pessimistic kind of tone to this film that can be summed up in Harry Lime’s words: “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” It’s as if after World War Two, life in Vienna—even around the world—doesn’t matter anymore. People have stopped caring about others so much that they regard each other simply as dots. Now, there is some truth in that, but not in the pessimistic way.

     See, I remember four years ago when I rededicated my life to Christ at a youth conference. I had come to the realization that I was a small speck on a planet that, compared to the rest of the universe, was a small speck itself. That made me realize: “God made all this. He’s bigger than all this. And He really can fix my problems.” But what’s even better is that He doesn’t consider us just to be little specks! Back at the beginning of the year, I referenced Psalm 139 in another of my posts, and there’s another part of the psalm that applies to this idea: “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you.” (139:17-18)

     To God, we are not just little dots. We are masterpieces. And we are all worth it, in times of war and in times of peace. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that you will trust in a God today who is bigger than all of us and our problems, and that you would worship Him no matter how pessimistic the rest of the world seems.

(By the way: speaking of pessimistic movies, next month brings us another new series. And I'm looking forward to sharing it with you!)

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