Friday, July 06, 2007

A Life Less Anonymous

Note: this post is part of the Performance That Changed Your Life Blog-a-thon, hosted by All About My Movies.

There's a line in Carol Reed's essential The Third Man that speaks so much volume about Joseph Cotten's character, Holly Martins, that it's repeated for us. While in Harry Lime's (Orson Welles) apartment trying to get to the bottom of why the friend who invited him to Vienna was apparently killed in an auto accident, Martins questions the building's porter who saw it all happen. The porter amends a story of the accident Martins was told by a Lime acquaintance by adding 'there was a third man.' Martins probes deeper, and gets only this:

'He could have been ... just anybody.'

To which Martins repeats to himself while gazing at the crime scene from the apartment window:

'Just anybody.'

It's this aspect of the Martins character, and Cotten's performance, that makes The Third Man one of cinema's greatest masterpieces. And it's also one of the reasons why I was able to identify with Martins so much. If one performance (moreso a character in this case) changed my life, then it was Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins.

Martins is a man full of contradictions, haunted by questions to which there are no easy (if any) answers. Despite being a successful writer of pulp Western books, he is broke and takes old friend Lime up on a business offer in Vienna. Despite doing everything right and going out of his way to help the lovely Anna, she can barely give him a second glance because her mind is filled with thoughts of Lime, who was by all accounts an asshole of the highest order. And when his adventure ends with the bad guy in the ground and a mystery solved, Martins is right back where he started: with no money and no girl.

The end result leaves us with the same quiet sadness Martins' face displays throughout the movie. As the mystery of Harry Lime unfolds, Martins realizes just as we do that this is his one chance to live the life of the outlaw cowboys made famous in his Western books. In Martins' literary mind, investigating the death of his dear friend will lead to glory, and possibly the girl Lime left behind. But the revelations Martins makes along the way, and a few terrible deeds he's forced to have a hand in, show him that this is no world for cowboys and that 'anybodies' like him are best-served to not make many waves.

The biggest question in Holly Martins' world is the same one men have been struggling with for centuries: why do women fall for assholes, when the Nice Guy who wants to treat them right is standing in front of them? Martins never gets an answer to this question, but he spends most of the movie trying to solve the riddle. By the end, what he's left with is a conclusion many of us know all too well: Nice Guys Finish Last. When Martins first meets Anna, he sees her as a hard-luck performer scrapping to make ends meet in post-war Vienna -- and she's also one of the few people who's mildly interested in helping his investigation. Martins takes this as a sign she's interested in him, but she sees it as a way to connect with her recently departed lover, the riddle that is Harry Lime.

Martins' persistence with Anna is The Third Man's most heartbreaking aspect, as he seems willing to go to the ends of the Earth just to make her consider this man who appears to be the complete opposite of the public enemy she used to date. Near the end, Martins tries to inch his way into her life by asking 'Why must we always quarrel?', a desperate attempt to get a reaction from Anna on their non-relationship.

Vienna is Martins' chance to free himself from being 'just anybody,' by living out his cowboy fantasy and stepping out of Lime's shadow once and for all. But his attempts at glory leave him thoroughly humbled: the villain he shoots at the end is not the desperado with a pair of revolvers, but his unarmed friend; his opportunity to promote himself and his books at Mr. Crabbin's cultural exchange ends in disaster as he is expected to speak on dealing with fame, a subject he obviously has little experience with; and his most famous failure is saved for the last shot. Despite not capturing Anna's heart with his noble deeds, he has one last ace up his sleeve, straight from his writings: he'll wait for Anna after the funeral and the two will ride off together. Reed makes us wait on pins and needles as the shot of Anna coming down the road unfolds slowly, and when she does arrive at Martins by the side of the road, she doesn't even pay him a glance. Anna walks past the camera, and Martins is left by himself, lights a cigarette and throws the match to the ground in frustration.

The dilemma Martins faced would be portrayed many more times in Hollywood romances, but never so believably or in such a heartbreaking fashion as in The Third Man. It becomes clear after watching Martins' bumbling journey that there are some mysteries that may not be solved, certainly not by Nice Guys.


Catherine said...

Wow. That was a really engaging article. I'm so glad I finally saw The Third Man for myself, just over a week ago. You raise some very interesting points - that scene at the very end after the funeral was the perfect ending. So simple, so frustrating, so poignant. Yessum.

Good read.

Adam Ross said...

Thanks Catherine. Roger Ebert had an interesting tidbit about the ending:

"It almost did not exist. Selznick and Greene originally wanted a happy ending. (Greene originally wrote, '. . . her hand was through his arm'). Reed convinced Greene he was wrong. The movie ends as it begins, in a cemetery, and then Calloway gives Holly a ride back to town. They pass Anna walking on the roadside. Holly asks to be let out of the jeep. He stands under a tree, waiting for her. She walks toward him, past him, and then out of frame, never looking. After a long pause, Holly lights a cigarette and wearily throws away the match. Joseph Cotten recalled later that he thought the scene would end sooner. But Reed kept the camera running, making it an unusually long shot, and absolutely perfect."

VW said...

Contradictions & no easy answers - an apt way to sum up life and this film. I enjoyed your analysis.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I really enojoyed your post. Cotten has long been one of my favorite actors and I was happy to see his name mentioned on the list of contributions to the "Performances" blog-a-thon. My favorite Cotten performance is in Shadow of a Doubt, but his Holly Martins in The Third Man is stunning. Great post!

J.J. said...

Thanks for this. I love Cotten, and he's too often overlooked.