Friday, December 18, 2009

Moral vertigo

Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?Recognize the quote, recognize the view? It's from one of the all-time great films, showing at Film Forum in a new 35mm print for its 60th anniversary: Carol Reed's "The Third Man." The question is posed by a character played by supremely shady Orson Welles from one of the cars of the giant ferris wheel of Vienna's Prater. I know "The Third Man" well,as it used to play all summer in the Burgkino in Vienna. Once upon a time I knew where every scene was shot (the film was shot largely on location), from the Josefsplatz (above), where Harry Lime's apartment lies, to a lane above the university, St. Ruprecht and Maria am Gestade. The scene below is one of many shot near Am Hof (and on an angle). The last time I watched "The Third Man" - nearly a decade ago - I noticed a shot in the opening scenes of St Stephen's cathedral without its roof - one of the many casualties of war. But I didn't notice that the mountain of rubble of the final chase is on the Hoher Markt, site now of a 50s-era building with an exhibition of Roman ruins in the basement; perhaps they discovered the Roman remains when rebuilding? In any case, the film is a marvel of plot, visual wit, and moral murk - the screenplay was written by Graham Greene, after all. It raises hard questions about the adequacy of the morals - and the estimate of human nature - of the modern (American) age. In the final scene, Holly Martins, our American protagonist - a writer of pulp western novels with clear heroes and villains - waits for the complicated European woman he's fallen in love with to join him after the interment of her morally bankrupt lover at the Zentralfriedhof. She walks right by.

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