Frankensteinian Science Goes Too Far
Decline and Fall: Exhibit 13,759

Sunday Night Journal — January 28, 2007

Mr. Martins, From The Other Side

I had planned to write about something else this evening, but this afternoon my wife and I sat down to watch our latest NetFlix arrival, The Third Man. As I may have mentioned here before, I don’t, in general, take movies all that seriously as art. In particular, I don’t take the commercial products of Hollywood very seriously at all: even the better ones are rarely more than a couple of hours’ entertainment. Those that I would bother seeing a second time are pretty rare, and even with many of those, like The Big Sleep, it isn’t so much that I think them great art as that they establish some kind of atmosphere that I enjoy visiting now and again, or that they’re simply a big entertaining spectacle, like the first three Star Wars movies.

But this is the real stuff. Unless I’m succumbing to an over-enthusiastic first impression, it’s one of the very rare movies that can be thought of in the same way as a first-rate novel or poem, as something to which one might return now and again, and come away enriched each time. We might have watched it again immediately if we hadn’t had other things to do, and we’ll probably watch it once more before we send it back.

I had seen it once before, perhaps twenty years ago, in a rather murky VHS copy, on a rather small television with bad sound. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, which I have to attribute to some combination of the poor technical quality and my own inattention. I have to postulate the latter, because murky sound and video don’t explain why I missed the brilliance of Graham Greene’s screenplay. (Since then the original film has been restored and the DVD version is beautifully clear and rich, and although we haven’t gone in for the home theater business we now have a medium-sized TV, and the sound from the DVD player runs through the stereo, which is good enough for me.)

The Third Man is worthy of comparison with Greene’s best work. It combines utterly convincing naturalism—involving, as is customary with Greene, a pretty seedy milieu—and a great deal of symbolic resonance and power. It features a device to which Greene was drawn more than once: the encounter of a naïve American with real evil, his difficulty in recognizing it, and his clumsy response. (Unlike some of the other instances, in this case the American does not end up doing more harm than good.) The milieu is the underworld of occupied and partitioned Vienna after World War II, and the evil is, most immediately, a childhood friend of the American who is now a cold-blooded racketeer, and, more subtly, the whole sad and corrupt condition of Western civilization at the middle of the twentieth century.

In one of a hundred touches that make this picture vivid, Greene has the American, Holly Martins (a man, despite the name), be a writer of simplistic Westerns. When a scatterbrained cultural propagandist recruits Martins to speak to a literary society, he introduces Martins as “Mr. Martins, from the other side.” The symbolic weight of a phrase like that is not likely to have been an accident, coming from the pen of Graham Greene. Nor is it an accident that the topic of Martins’ speech is to be “the crisis of faith,” or that he has nothing at all to say about it. Dozens of similarly pregnant examples could be mentioned. There is fertile ground for a great deal of literary analysis here, and I suppose critics and graduate students have done it.

In addition to the screenplay, and a lot of pretty much perfect acting, there is one other major contributor to the film’s power: the marvelous black-and-white cinematography, and the war-damaged city of Vienna, its combination of grandeur and ruin perfectly suited to the story. I could paper a room with still shots from this movie—in scene after scene I had to stop myself from hitting the pause button so that I could fully take in the image, and the next time I watch it I’ll do so. “What makes black-and-white so good?” my wife asked, and then answered her own question: “It’s only about light and shadow.” Yes, and that’s perfect for a story in which moral complexity is, to use a phrase now forever associated with Greene, the heart of the matter.

I came away from this movie feeling that I’d looked deeply into the heart of the modern world. Offhand I can’t think of any Hollywood film of the past thirty years or so which has caused me to say anything of that sort. It’s not that directors don’t try—they try all too hard, in some cases. But when they do, they nearly always seem heavy-handed and crude. Perhaps it’s partly that the technical resources now available to big-budget filmmakers create a bias toward the big, loud, and dumb. It also seems fair to say that there’s been a decline in sensibility and dignity in the culture at large and in Hollywood in particular, and of course a huge distortion of the moral sense. The movie industry of 1949, when The Third Man was made, was probably pretty corrupt, and certainly made plenty of heavy-handed and crude films, but it hadn’t yet gone in for the strange combination of nihilism and manicheanism so characteristic of it now. It occurred to me after I wrote that last sentence to imagine what a contemporary remake of The Third Man would be like. A bad thought; I hope it never happens.



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