Goodnight, Vienna: THE THIRD MAN (British Lion 1949)

I’m just gonna come right out and say it: THE THIRD MAN is one of the greatest movies ever made. How could it not be, with all that talent, from producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, director Carol Reed , screenwriter Graham Green, and cinematographer Robert Krasker, to actors Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli , and Trevor Howard. It’s striking visuals, taut direction, and masterful acting transcend the film noir genre and make THE THIRD MAN one of the must-see films of 20th Century cinema.

The story starts simply enough, as American pulp novelist Holly Martins arrives in post-war Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime, only to learn that Harry was recently killed in a car accident. He attends the graveside service, meeting Harry’s mysterious actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and is quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of intrigue and deception involving the British military police, black marketeers, and a very much alive Harry…

Reed fills the screen with dazzling cinematic imagery, from a terrifying ferris wheel ride to the shadow world of Vienna’s sewers, each scene giving the viewer something different: Dutch angles, quick cut edits, close-ups, and atmospheric lighting. Little touches like that kid and his ball or the man with the balloons add greatly to the film’s mood. While Reed was already one of England’s master craftsmen, there’s a heavy Orson Welles influence throughout THE THIRD MAN. Most historians claim the film is pure Reed, but the Welles touch is so evident in many scenes that one wonders…

Orson Welles  doesn’t appear as Harry Lime until around 30 minutes into the film, but his presence is felt throughout, and the entire movie revolves around this charming rogue. Welles is reunited with his Mercury Theater cohort Joseph Cotten as the pulp fiction writer Holly (“I write cheap novelettes”), who sets things in motion. Alida Valli was well known to Italian movie lovers; she’d go on to a long and prosperous international career. Trevor Howard is good as always as British Major Calloway, and his second-in-command Sgt. Paine is played by James Bond’s future boss Bernard Lee. There’s another 007 connection in THE THIRD MAN as well: assistant director Guy Hamilton would go on to direct GOLDFINGER , DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER , LIVE AND LET DIE , and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.

Then there’s that unique zither score by Austrian native Anton Karas, unlike anything heard in films before or since. Allegedly, Reed didn’t want to go with traditional Viennese waltz music, and came across Karas playing his zither at a wine garden one night. One thing led to another, and the zither plays a huge factor in making THE THIRD MAN so memorable, not to mention making a brief star out of the humble Karas, whose “Harry Lime Theme” became an unlikely #1 hit in 1950:

I could go on and on about the brilliance of THE THIRD MAN, but why waste time reading my humble scribblings? Go out and watch the film yourselves, and if you already have – watch it again!

This Eagle Doesn’t Fly: FLAP (Warner Brothers 1970)

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FLAP is an attempt by director Sir Carol Reed to jump on the late 60’s/early70’s “relevance” bandwagon by depicting the modern-day mistreatment of the American Indian. It’s a seriocomic character study that struggles to find it’s identity, and as a result fails at both comedy and drama.

FLAP is Flapping Eagle, an ex-soldier living back on the reservation who’s “pissed off at everybody”. He’s a hard drinking man, as is just about all the Indians here, feeding into the stereotypical “drunken Indian” image. Flap’s had enough of the noise coming from construction workers building a highway project right next to the rez, and causes a fracas between the hardhats and the Indians, damaging a bulldozer in the process. Native Wounded Bear (who has a correspondence school law degree) points out the highway is gong through sacred burial ground, which turns out not to be the case. Everyone’s up in arms, especially local cop Rafferty, who has it in for Flap.

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Flap and his drinking buddies (dim Lobo, young writer Eleven Snowflake, Wounded Bear, storekeeper Looking Deer) decide to become revolutionaries, and derail a train to the rez, claiming it as abandoned property on their land. When Rafferty shoots an elder’s dog who’s always biting at his ankles, Flap has a confrontation that lands the cop in the hospital. The old man dies of a heart attack, and according to an old treaty, if a tribal member dies as a result of malicious intent on the white man’s part, the tribe can reclaim all the land they can walk to from sunup to sundown, resulting in the entire tribe, led by Flap, marching to Phoenix to take over the town. A near riot breaks out, but Flap is assassinated by Rafferty from his hospital window (conveniently placed in the center of town).

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Anthony Quinn plays Flap like a Native American Zorba. That’s not a put-down; Quinn’s the best thing about the film. The two-time Oscar winner had been in pictures since 1936, and knew just what buttons to push to win audience sympathy. The problem’s not Quinn, it’s his character (or any character here) isn’t fully fleshed out by screenwriter Clair Huffaker, adapting his own 1967 novel “Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian”. Huffaker was an uneven writer who produced some good scripts (FLAMING STAR , 100 RIFLES) and bad (HELLFIGHTERS, TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD). FLAP falls into the latter category.

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Quinn’s costars are Claude Akins as Lobo, future producer/director Tony Bill (Eleven), veteran Victor Jory (Wounded Bear), LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE’s Victor French (Rafferty), and Shelley Winters as Flap’s prostitute girlfriend Dorothy Bluebell. Shelley’s her over-the-top self again, at one point threatening to pull a Lorena Bobbitt (Google it!) on unfaithful Flap with a pair of scissors! Familiar Faces include Rodolfo Acosta, William Mims, Anthony Caruso, J. Edward McKinley, Alan Carney  , Parley Bear, and the only real Native American in the cast Chief John War Eagle. Marvin Hamlisch contributes the score, and co-wrote the theme song (done by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition).

Carol Reed was coming fresh off his Oscar-winning success of 1968’s OLIVER! when he took on this project. Sir Carol made a number of true classic films: ODD MAN OUT, THE THIRD MAN, OUR MAN IN HAVANA. Sadly, FLAP is not among them. Maybe if all concerned had settled on a pure comedy, or gone the other way with stark drama, FLAP would’ve been a better movie. As it stands, I would recommend you skip this one and look into three other movies of the time dealing with the problems of Native Americans; Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN, Abraham Polonsky’s TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, and Ralph Nelson’s SOLDIER BLUE.

 

 

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