AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
FOR ORSON, AND OUR SPANISH TIMES AT
by Harlan Kennedy
Movies are a vast family as
troubled as the Ambersons and as defiantly close-knit as the O'Haras of
Case before the court: That Harry Lime and Hank Quinlan are near-identical siblings, composed of the same screen quintessence. That The Third Man and Touch of Evil are the same movie a decade apart, the later a murky-majestical version of the earlier, tackling like a benighted Quixote the same windmills of illusion, foolishness, friendship, hope, and treachery. That, among truths here called to witness, a pianola is a zither by another name; Vienna, Austria, is twin town with Venice, California; and a story that begins with a death by motor vehicle and ends with a murder by betrayal walks a long, Homeric road from civil accident to divine intervention.
Above all, Hank is Harry, Reed-Greene-Welles's anti-hero living on into a sourer nihilism, though the dots that Hank tries to stop moving are criminal dots – progress of a kind towards salvation. Harry dwelt among gutters and stars; you seldom found him in a middle place between sewer and Ferris wheel. (Except with a cat in a doorway, wearing a wry smile for the homeliness of it.) Harry was pure good and pure evil with nothing between. Hank lives with the director's movie camera – his own – seemingly strapped to his waist, lens gazing up to encompass mythic avoir du pois. (For one Quinlan, take four parts Harry Lime with two of Falstaff.) The fat cop no longer lives in the high or the low; his bones can't take it. But he is forever framed, poignantly and defiantly, against the Titans: those gleaming oil derricks with the up-down-around chunting of the giant pumps, resembling a seedy-industrial version of the Prater wheel. Hank like Harry still dreams of omnipotence, for the world, for God, for Hank. He is just, well, older....
Welles's 1958 thriller-for-hire was never overtly a variant on The
Maybe Welles, without knowing it, wanted to go deeper into the maze he wandered through as a guest in the earlier film. And maybe (critics too must be allowed their wry grandiloquences) he was the man destiny chose to give us midcentury Hollywood's straight-from-the-unconscious answer to literature's twin set of Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses. The dime-budget American movie browsing on themes and motifs from a postwar Anglo-US thriller could be country cousin to the Irish meganovel inspired by a Greek verse epic. Touch of Evil, too, condenses a famous ur-text into 24 hours in the life of a town. Touch of Evil, too, sacredly profanes its template with eruptions of artful, antic caricature. Touch of Evil, too, finds crazily appropriate correlatives in one work's details and dramatis personae for the fabled characters, settings, and moral assault courses of the other.
Questions of authorship, real or perceived. Before writing this essay I went into a videostore and asked if they had a copy of TheThird Man. "It's in `Directors' under Welles," said the girl. She went over to get it. Surprise! But isn't this the most forgivable mistake in film history? Carol Reed is Carol Reed, Graham Greene is Graham Greene, but The Third Man – as high baroque in style as Kane, starring a Kane-Mercury alumnus (Joseph Cotten) in the lead, with Lime himself all but wholly scripted by Kane's auteur – is in so many ways an Orson Welles film that.... THUD!! BANG!!!
A bomb went off today, killing two, in a small town on the frontier between the
Ten years apart, a bordertown and a partitioned city give two different innocences the same welcome:
automotive tragedy. The writer of
dime Western novels arrives in
Partition Holly Martins
If Harry is Hank, who is Holly? A trinity and three-in-one (Joycean multivalence lives!); an exploded diagram of beleaguered idealism or a human city subsectored into the determined wrong-righter (Holly Martins as Mike Vargas), the vulnerable outsider (Martins as Susie Vargas), and the betrayer of a friend for higher good (Martins as Pete Menzies). By the time The Third Man turned into Touch of Evil, the world had been through Dwight Eisenhower and Stalin Unmasked, through Doris Day and Elvis Presley, through family values and nuclear paranoia. Zeitgeist Manicheism – especially in the world of the double-feature cheapie to which Welles had yoked himself for Universal-International – all but disabled a director wanting to pack subtly warring facets into one character. Holly Martins and his perfect ambivalence, his mixture of the combative and comatose, the innocent and skeptical, the romantic lapdog and the biter-of-the-hand-of-friendship, were so complicatedly downbeat that they belonged to another age. Mid-to-late-Fifties popular cinema wanted popcorn archetypes, and good filmmakers (Sirk, Minnelli, Tashlin) found ways, many ways, to satisfy art and Mammon. So Holly Martins becomes three characters, with the Vargas facet borrowing a little white-knight courage-with-knowingness from The Third Man's Major Calloway.
How Dietrich Is My Valli
And the girl? It takes a mournfully beautiful exotic, a woman as rootless as the man she loves, to engender one. Alida Valli, the Italian playing a Russian who pretends to be Czech, becomes – with the drift of ten years and the accretion of kitsch – Marlene Dietrich, a German playing a fortunetelling Mexican named Tanya. From Harry's girl to Hank's girl. Keep the home fires burning for the man who'll never come home.
In Touch of Evil, unlike The Third Man, there is no half-romance, no meeting even, between the hero and the girlfriend of the antihero. Vargas (Charlton Heston) has his chaster love-in-jeopardy in Susie, and business and pleasure don't mix in a decade of grimmer, fiercer moralism. All that means, with help from a Welles determined to make them do so, are shades of evil, shades that find their only rest from (self)torment in the dingy, gypsy glamour of the fortuneteller's lair. Here plays the pianola – in whose plaintive, bittersweet plinkings who can fail to hear echo of The Third Man's zither? – and here dwells love, in the form of a heavy-lidded torch-bearer, Tanya, who tells her gross ex-flame to "lay off the candy bars, honey." It's not much for Hank. Nothing like as much as Anna was for Harry (not that we can quantify that in the Future Projected tense of the Greene-Reed film). But maybe enough. Dietrich like Valli gets the film's last scene, walking off down a desolate road towards the end credits. In The Third Man it was daylight, albeit outside a cemetery. In Touch of Evil, it is night, and the world has become a cemetery.
Kitsch in Sync
What does it matter what you say about a film's style? In great craftsmen-directors style exists not to be
noticed; it is the invisible handservant of content. But Welles wasn't a craftsman-director, nor maybe are any of the
greater-than-greats. He was a
show-off, ringmaster, and megalomaniac. And for reasons we may never
know, Carol Reed, who was a craftsman-director,
became infected with Welles's greatness/madness
in The Third
The Third Man and Touch of Evil have a likeness of style almost dazzling. It is Toppling-Over Expressionism. Low angles, tilted or cambered framings, shadows that almost drown their owners, split-second faces craning in windows or leering from doorways: all edited so fast – or in Touch of Evil, plan-séquence'd so fast – that we never sense there is time for us or the characters to stand upright. (Not even princes of noir like Tourneur or Lang, not even Welles himself, so sustained the delirium for a whole movie.) Many of the moments we remember in The Third Man are the rare ones when people do stand up, or near-perpendicularly loll, in an outbreak of something resembling repose. Lime smiling in the doorway; Anna self-possessed at the graveside; Martins leaning against the car as Anna passes by, out of his life.
In Touch of Evil disequilibrium of style is almost comically hectic, culminating in a motel sequence that not only throws polite narrative steadiness to the winds – Welles keeps dollying in on the rooms' Catherine Wheel–shaped speaker outlets as if they are the Delphic navel of a mad mad world – but has motel janitor Dennis Weaver outacting Anthony Perkins two years before Psycho. ("I want you to clutch that tree bodily and grimace and chitter like a crazyperson, Dennis." "Oh, okay, Mr. Welles.")
The style is the content both for Reed in The Third Man and Welles in Touch of Evil. The two movies are about lives coming apart in a topography that has already come apart: split city, frontier town. They are about places where trust has died and suspicion – all those voyeurist windows, all that informant whispering – is the new fever, the new pandemic. And they are about worlds in which peace and repose have become impossible chimeras.
Look at the beds alone in each movie! In The Third Man Anna clings to that metal bedframe as if it holds the last, small magic of the life she had, or thought she had, or wanted to have, with Harry. In Touch of Evil the tutelary bedframe has become a wrought-iron monster, almost one of the cast. Welles and cameraman Russell Metty frame it engulfingly as its Laocoon whorls watch over a drugged Susie while witnessing a brutal murder. Every time Susie gets on a bed in this film, the world goes mad around her. She has to hammer on motel walls, cower before seeming rapists, scream at a dead Akim Tamiroff's head lolling popeyed above her. No sleep for the wicked. No sleep, in these universes, for anybody.
There is an important corporate character in The Third Man: Harry's friends. They arrange and enact Harry's "death" and keep up a steady stream of lies for inquisitive strangers. They are multicultural exotics with troublesome names like Winkel (" Veenkel!") and faces from some casting list headed "Creepy Mid-Europeans Of A Certain Age." The Austrian doctor, the Rumanian something-or-other: blithe, plausible, and lying through their teeth. We have no doubt that Harry, a larger if not better soul, would dispose of them as soon as they no longer served a purpose, if it served his. Likewise Hank Quinlan makes all the use he can of "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Tamiroff), his motor-mouthed mouthpiece in negotiations with Vargas, through Mrs. Vargas, before actually bumping him off.
Tamiroff's turn in Touch of Evil is an extra turn of the
eccentricity screw ten years after
the "friends" of The
To Betray a Friend
What are friends for? What are friends, period? Both films end with a man betrayed by his friend. Both films end in a pursuit and a death. If the scales fall from Holly Martins's eyes in the hospital where he sees the child victims of Lime's penicillin racket, they fall from Vargas's in the police file room where Quinlan's crony Pete (Joseph Calleia) confirms the old police detective's history – every dossier available – of framings and corruption. Just as Martins volunteers himself for the role of "dumb decoy duck," Vargas volunteers Pete – his shadow as much as Quinlan's – for the same task. (And Dr. Joseph Cotten, formerly Saint Holly the guardian angel of moralistic traitors, is right there at Vargas's elbow when the Mexican clinches his decision on seeing the damaged Susie in the jailhouse.) Harry/Hank will be set up and hunted down. A rendezvous in a cab; an old pal carrying a wire; same difference. Then the chase through Stygian chiaroscuro, through a shared noir imageworld of water, shadow, and underground or underbridge echo, where the story won't stop till the fat man sings or, a world earlier, the younger man gives his last wry nod to his friend with the gun.
Charm of Evil
"What about all those people he put in the death house? Save your tears for them."
Calloway to Martins in The Third Man? No, Vargas to Menzies in Touch of Evil. Both movies are about the ability to cry over an evil man. Hank and Harry aren't common-or-yardarm fodder for moral hangings; they aren't blind thugs hitting old ladies over the head, nor political messiahs promising purity through genocide. They are fallen angels who keep falling, brilliant chanters who made the wrong choice but followed it with a knowing, topsy-turvy-transcendent logic. We are captivated by Harry Lime because he spins the greatest excuses for wickedness a man can in the time it takes a fairground wheel to revolve 360 degrees. (0 what a noble mind is here o'erturned.) Would we hate Lime, as we properly, morally should, if The Third Man's hospital scene had shown us his victims? Reed-Greene simply walk us through the ward, allowing Trevor Howard's words and Joe Cotten's facial expressions to tell the story. But Howard's words are dry British understatement and Cotten never won prizes for Jannings-like facial apocalypse. Maybe this is a piece of cheating; though it does let us ponder the larger horror of "What if we saw the victims and still liked Harry Lime?" In the final sewer chase the tragic charge is not in Harry's death but in his humiliation: a prince among scoundrels reduced to a rat scurrying in a tunnel.
Hank Quinlan is an emperor in a wilderness. The palm fronds
wave imperially behind him – and behind those are the Titanic oil derricks – in
the chattering night scene in which other characters are reduced, passim, to sycophants hovering
around their Caesar. Unlike Lime, Quinlan is a bully and bloat vulgarian. But his shamelessness, his existential supremacism are as incandescent as the con man's from
Popular cinema hasn't produced many true Nietzschean antiheroes. Over-reachers usually come in the tinny form of Bond villains and kin: to be perched on a post, product labels turned to the viewer, and then shot noisily down. But Hank and Harry have a wit, a pathos, and a lordly, pious honesty. They might believe there is a magma of truth and honor bubbling away at the core of their deeds; that the act of flouting other people's rules and shibboleths is itself an act of honor and self-authentication; and that great souls, pursuing the yea-saying nihilism of self-advancement (Lime) or jungle justice (Quinlan), don't have to consider the dots moving far, far below.
It won't wash, of course. Bad is bad. So both men die. This gives us the satisfaction of seeing good triumph and the freedom to weep over characters we love but could not forgive. We step out into the daylight after each film knowing that the world is a safer place without Hank or Harry. But a duller one, too. We miss them.
HOLLY: You were in love with him, weren't you?
ANNA: I don't know. How can you know a thing like that afterwards?
SCHWARTZ (Mort Mills): You liked him, didn't you?
TANYA: He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?...
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEPT-OCT 1999 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.