Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Third Man -- final thoughts

Charles Drazin's book In Search of The Third Man is, as I said at the beginning of this series of posts, one of the most interesting books that I've read in a long time.  And since this blog is mainly about books and writers (rather than films), I have to say that the one thing that Drazin demonstrates is that the cinema is very definitely not a writer's medium.
True, the scriptwriter, Graham Greene, got his own way about more or less everything; he was not dissatisfied with the end product.  But he had to suffer endless suggestions for 'improvement' from the likes of David O. Selznick; and few writers, I suspect, would have the emotional resilience and the strength of character to fight as Greene fought.  Another factor, of course, is that few of us have the international reputation, both as novelist and screenwriter, that Greene had.  The average writer on a film project is treated as is he were one of the cleaners, and his dialogue is rewritten by anyone who thinks he can do better; which is everyone, including the studio cat.

A final thought, if you're interested in Graham Greene: Maud Newton had a piece about Greene on 8 July, and it contains a number of links.

Another point which Drazin demonstrates clearly is that the movie business is, above all, a team game.  The director is in charge, but even he will have to contend with the producer, the distributor, the man who does the music, the film editor, and a host of others.  Not to mention the actors, who may have their own ideas as to what the film is all about, and how to play their parts.  All of these factors have to meld into some sort of whole, and if a success emerges it is more by the grace of God than anything else.  Though all participants will subsequently claim that their contribution, naturally, was the key to the whole thing. 
The Third Man created, or enhanced, the reputations of almost all the talent involved.  Orson Welles was the one who benefited most, though his performance was not all that startling.  Joseph Cotten admired Welles as a director, but was not greatly impressed with him as an actor.  And Welles himself had his doubts.  He begged Reed to let him do repeated takes of one scene -- 37 attempts in all -- and Carol Reed let him.  But Reed already knew that he was going to use take 3, which he did.  And as Welles went on and on, trying to get it right, the result got worse and worse.
Overall, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, which was a just reward.  In the following spring, there were three nominations for individual Oscars: Robert Krasker was listed for best black-and-white photography; Carol Reed for direction; and Oswald Hafenrichter, editing.  Of these three, only Krasker won. 
Just to emphasise the point that movie-making is a team game, it is worth pointing out that Krasker did not, in fact, shoot some of the key scenes in the film!  There were three units at work in Vienna: Krasker was in charge of the night unit, Stan Pavey the sewer unit, and Hans Schneeberger the day unit.  There was also a 'second unit', headed by John Wilcox, which had the task of filming 'less important' shots while the main unit was setting up something considered vital. 
The result of this policy was that the second unit actually filmed what turned out to be the most famous shot in the whole film: the one where Harry Lime's face is suddenly lit up as he stands in a shadowed doorway.  Similarly, the final scene on the cemetery road was shot by Hans Schneeberger.  Yet Krasker got the Oscar.  Such are the quirks of fate and circumstance.
I hope that by now I have persuaded you to see The Third Man, if you have not done so already.  But -- whatever you do -- don't watch it on Sky.  Because sure as eggs, when you get to that final scene, some superannuated cretin with a loud voice will burst in upon you and demand that you stay tuned and watch Dumb and Dumber Part 64, which follows next. 

1 comment:

John Wheater said...

I like your warning about Sky interrupting the final scene of one of my favourite films.

You wrote this in 2004, now the BBC is doing it too.

And why must they have that horrid picture in the corner all the time?