Friday, September 02, 2005

From New Orleans to Vienna

Watching the terrible visuals of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies. One that tells the tale of a ravaged city, with its inhabitants trying their best to remain human despite the fact that the surroundings they once knew are now largely destroyed.

I am speaking of 'The Third Man,' which I believe is one the ten best films ever made. Carol Reed's movie opens with shots of post-war Vienna, once a posh, striking city, reduced now to crumbling buildings, decaying culture and interlocked in international politics. The same could be said for New Orleans, certainly one of the most distinctive cities in the nation, but one that will probably never be looked at in the same way.

In Reed's version of Vienna, in between the ruins of bombings are people who are trying as best they can to do the things they did before the war, so that even for a moment their minds can be taken off the depressing sights around them. Almost every character in 'The Third Man' is guilty of these actions, beginning with Maj. Calloway, who Joseph Cotten's character Holly Martins meets in one of the first scenes. Calloway is obviously a defeated man, whose job of enforcing laws in one fraction of a largely lawless city is fruitless, giving him little motivation. But chasing criminals such as Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is one of the few things he has left that still make him feel like someone.

Then there is Dr. Winkel, the professor who invites Martins to speak on his books for an educational series of his. Programs like Winkel's serve as a brief respite for the residents of Vienna trying to make sense of the horrors around them.

And of course the film's most famous set piece, the Ferris Wheel serves in this capacity too. In that scene, Martins and Lime are among the few visitors to a carnival area untouched by the bombings. The carnival is still operating and the Ferris Wheel is one of the few reminders of the pre-war Vienna. Lime's timeless line after exiting the Ferris Wheel sums up post-war Europe and gives hope to those affected by the hurricane, as adversity can bring with it prosperity:

'Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.'

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