Third Man and the City


This is a portion of a talk that the author presented to the Sages group at St. Peter’s House in Philadelphia on Dec. 9, 2015.

Although I lived in San Francisco for forty years, I consider myself an old Philadelphian, since I was born and raised here. And we older Philadelphians all remember the vast mid-century demolitions that served to hollow out our city. I remember Dock Street, for example, as a vibrant working street, perhaps just a little shabby. After it was demolished, the area stood for years, for decades even, as a wasteland of parking lots. I remember the newspapers moaning that it was reminiscent of areas of London after the blitz—this was in a period when memories of the war were fresh in peoples’ minds.

By way of illustration, I would like to turn to another city—Vienna. I have never been there, but I know it, in a fashion, from The Third Man, which was released to theatres a few months ago in a fresh print. So, let’s take a movie break.

I immediately thought of The Third Man in preparing this talk, because in wondering what I might speak to you about, the scene came to mind in which Joseph Cotton, in the role of pulp novelist Holly Martin, is Shanghaied into a speaking engagement before a literary club. If you remember the scene, Cotton is whisked away in a taxi through the garishly lit streets of Vienna, where everyone seems to secretly know everyone else’s business; he thinks he is being driven to his death. Instead, he ends up before an audience who had assembled to hear his dissertations on world literature, and ends up making a fool of himself.

The film is an allegory for life in post-war Europe. Cotton is perfect as the straight-talking and pragmatic, but bumbling, American, typical of the types who flooded into Europe after the war. His friend and nemesis Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is another type of American—but no less common—the sharp wheeler-dealer, out to get rich, no matter who might suffer.

The style of The Third Man is the opposite of that of the neo-realist films of the era, which by 1947 had become chic in U.S. art-house cinemas. The style here is a throwback to pre-war filmmaking, which still had its footing in the live theatre—the “low” or popular theatre, the vaudeville and the Viennese operettas. The scenes beguile us with dark humor and understated irony; one of the villains is portrayed in a fur coat and holding a puppy dog; the key scene takes place on a ferris wheel in an amusement park.

The escape from realism is buoyed by the sound track, the lilting commentary by the zither. It is a cousin of the hurdy-gurdy employed by Brecht’s narrator in “The Three Penny Opera” and employed for a similar purpose. Unlike the neo-realist films, in which the viewer is apt to weep for the maligned and downtrodden subjects, the ironic language of “The Third Man” vaults us out of the situation, so we can look back upon it with objectivity and criticism.

And Vienna also plays a part. Even though the film was shot on location in Vienna, whose wounds from allied bombing raids were still raw, the city appears to us like a stage set. The great baroque buildings appear in stark relief, their columns chipped away and fallen. It’s a vision of a city that is on its knees, showing its pockmarks from a syphilitic past—a former life that was too blissfully ignorant of its pending destruction. The last scene is a chase through a sewer—symbolic, no doubt, of the likely fate of our post-war throw-away and flush-away society.

The film made me think of Philadelphia, for as every old Philadelphian knows, “the time when we were great is far behind us.” It’s a wistful, even mournful attitude—the opposite of the more generalized belief, at least what we are constantly told in this country, that heedlessly plunging ahead means progress. But of course, pleasant as perpetual melancholy might be, it is a bit limiting. A little thought on the subject can allow us to conclude that it needn’t be true that our great days can never be regained. A study of history can provide needed perspective to help shape the future…

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