The Cuckoo Clock

Years ago there was an interview with the great British film director Alfred Hitchcock about a movie that he always wanted to make but never quite did. The movie is set at La Scala Milan, the great opera house of Italy.

Callas as Medea

Maria Callas (whom Hitchcock always wanted to cast) is on stage singing one of those death scene arias which she is delivering with every ounce of her passionate being.  She looks out into the audience and for a brief moment spies, through the glare of the lights, a commotion in one of the VIP boxes. A hand is raised. It contains a dagger. It falls with awful speed and force towards its victim. Callas sees this just as she is approaching a high C and the high C becomes a scream of such dramatic force that the audience immediately gives her a standing ovation. She, of course, is left looking towards that box and the murder she thinks she witnessed. Great idea. And what a start to a movie. Hitchcock was probably joking in the interview but in a way he was also revealing how he might take a creative germ and develop it into movies such as Psycho, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, and Suspicion. He was letting the reader in on some of his creative process, but the flow and narrative detail of the drama were inexorably locked in his imagination, and only he would tell the tale.

In a way that helps to define one of the characteristics of the “film noir,” that astonishing genre that fascinated audiences from the 1940’s to the late 1960’s with its dark sets, darker stories, chiaroscuro lighting effects, nefarious crimes, femme fatales,  trenchcoats, rakishly tilted fedoras, and atmospheric haze of cigarette smoke.

Robert Mitchum

Never has a raincoat looked more elegant and chic than when worn by Jean Gabin, Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum.  Never has a cigarette appeared more compelling and sexy than when Alain Delon would light up a Gitanes and blow blue smoke over some irresistible blonde. And I only imagine that the smoke was blue because “film noir” had to be in black and white, that greatest of cinematic media which allowed directors and actors to emphasize the corruption of their world and the evil in their hearts. Colour would have blown it completely.

The “noir” genre came into existence probably in the 16th century with the prototypical plays of Shakespeare. Just think of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar. They all have the quintessential qualities of classic “film noir” and have been filmed or staged as such.

Consider Orson Welles’s Julius Caesar Broadway production from 1937, or Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy balanced between spoken dialogue and voiceover, just like a Philip Marlowe narrative.   That Hamlet has a film score by William Walton that is straight out of Laura from 1944.

Now try putting some classic “film noir” actors in Shakespearean roles. Who wouldn’t have paid top dollar to see Bette Davis as the First Witch in Macbeth, or Joan Crawford as Lady Macbeth, or  even better, Barbara Stanwyck with her ineffable quality of vulnerability (think Double Indemnity)? Or how about Edward G. Robinson as Lear (Orson Welles played the part on television in a scaled down production by Peter Brooks) or Robert Mitchum as Iago or even Edmund in Lear with Rita Hayworth as Cordelia? But I am getting carried away.

Les Diaboliques

Anyway . . . the genre has been around a long time and probably achieved its pinnacle of success in movies like Les Diaboliques, whose final bathroom scene I still find frightening; or The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Five Fingers and Sunset Boulevard. And it still inspires. What are Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction or even Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (surely the final piece of introspection from Philip Marlowe?) but later examples of the genre.

Of all the outstanding “noir” examples, the one I keep coming back to because of its sheer power and storytelling originality is Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Filmed on location in war-torn Vienna in 1948, the movie is based on a novella by Graham Greene that he wrote in contemplation of the film treatment. It is a rare example of a film or theatre adaptation being so much better than the book. (The other of course being My Fair Lady, which adapted Shaw’s boringly self-reverential play Pygmalion.)

The film for me is the “ugly twin” of another movie classic, Casablanca from 1942, which famously starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Casablanca is a movie of heroes, of optimism in the face of tragedy, of the positive future that war could produce. It even has a happy ending. By contrast, The Third Manis a story about the dreadful after-effects of war.  It is about doubt, menace, gloom, conscience, fear, hatred, and evil. And most of all it is about a hunted soul, Harry Lime himself. His lover, Miss Schmidt, played by Alida Valli, is a Bergman lookalike. The hat, the coat, some of those intensely sad looks. But there is no redemption for her. The last scene of the movie is an invitation to a happy ending. A long shot in a Viennese cemetery. It is day, a rarity in this movie. The sky is clear. There is no rain. Miss Schmidt is in her Bergman hat and coat walking briskly between a colonnade of trees that are not just devoid of leaves, but resemble the skeletons of a First World War battle scene. She walks towards a man waiting for her, who is patiently smoking a cigarette. A man who has the power to change her life and who is in love with her. And she walks straight past him . . . it is so exactly brilliant and right in its courage.

Scene from The Third Man

Earlier, she has a scene with this man, Holly Martin, an American who makes a living writing Westerns, played with all the right naive credulity by Joseph Cotton. The scene exactly models the famous rendezvous of Bergman and Bogart in the Arab market place. In Casablanca, we understand perfectly that the lovers are soul mates, yet the scene ends with Bogart crushed by Bergman, his face averted from the camera, in the weakest shot any actor can be made to play. Cotton and Valli play out the analogous incident in a rail station waiting room but without any sign of closeness, and with the dissonance of her train leaving without her. It ends with that same weak shot of Cotton’s face turned from the camera, defeated. The same is true of humor. In Casablanca it’s the pickpocket and the fat blond waiter playing out a set piece comedy routine. In The Third Man the humor is embodied in a poor emaciated man with a fixated stare walking slowly and inexorably towards the British forces trying to sell a mass of balloons. What could be more incongruous?

The major protagonist of The Third Manis Vienna. It is ravaged by war. There are bomb sites, rationing, a pervasive gray ambiance, the black market, the look of hunger in people’s faces. The city is divided into four zones occupied and controlled by the Americans, the British, the Russians and the French, and you feel that political vise tightening around its people.  The streets are wet with some relentless seeping moisture, the damp cobblestones giving off a phosphorescent gleam under the street lights. Pavement and buildings are crumbling. The avenues and passageways appear as dark mazes or caves.


The play of shadows turns a small three-year-old boy with an oversized newsboy’s cap, very short pants, skinny legs, and a long coat, into a giant of scary proportions. He runs, shouting “Papa, Papa,” his voice echoing down the streets. I can hear it now.

I have seldom come across such mastery of light as Reed demonstrates here. But then, having created magical effects above ground, he takes us into the depths of the city . . . its sewers which he illuminates as if they were a vast subterranean cathedral. This is the setting for the denouement which I will mention in a moment.

The film’s second major protagonist is Harry Lime, played by a young Orson Welles. You have to wait 67 minutes for him to make his appearance but when he does it is one of those unforgettable moments in cinema history. A slightly drunk Holly Martin (who has been trying, despite ominous warnings, to unravel the mystery of his friend Harry’s suspicious death) thinks he is being followed in the dark streets. At the same time, a cat has escaped from Miss Schmidt, to whom Holly has declared his love. Suddenly, the camera discovers the cat which is seen purring in obvious delight, wrapping itself around the feet of a man hidden in the shadows of a doorway. Holly shouts so loudly that he wakes a neighbor in a top floor who opens her window to complain. It is the shaft of light from the windows that plays on the face of Orson Welles, revealing him like the most brilliant spotlight in the theatre.

Orson Welles

The very much alive Harry Lime stands,  smiles, is unafraid. And at this moment we become aware of how important the music has been throughout the movie. Indeed it is like a third protagonist, for it is so characterful. Carol Reed, who initially didn’t know what to do with the music, went out to dinner one night in Vienna and heard for the first time a zither played by Anton Karas. He was so taken with this sound that he recorded Karas for hours and then inserted the music into the film, including the famous Harry Lime theme.

The music is essentially commercial, the sort of ersatz folk idiom you hear in cafes and street corners when on vacation in various European capitals. But when used in the context of this drama and story it paints the states of minds, of emotions, of tragedy. The use of music at the moment of Harry Lime’s lighted entrance is nothing short of genius.

I mentioned the denouement. This happens in the Viennese sewers. The police and British forces have discovered that this is how Harry travels the city without detection and they are giving chase. Suddenly all those closed entrances are clangorously opened. Men and dogs and shouting fill the space of the submerged cathedral.

Vienna Sewers

And Harry runs. His body, his soul, they’re both running to be free of the calamity he has set in motion with his life and crimes. There is one shot that touches me with its simplicity and profundity. Harry has found a set of spiral stairs leading finally to the opening of a Viennese street. Escape is literally close at hand, but he doesn’t have the strength to open the grate. Instead you are left with the image of just his fingers stretching through the grillwork in the night air, the sound of wind blowing, as though his quivering fingers are small flowers that will never bloom in the sun. The moment lasts maybe fifteen seconds but it was made by a master.

Ran Blake

All of this has come to mind recently because of Ran Blake, one of our great faculty members, musician extraordinaire, founder of “Third Stream” with Gunther Schuller, and one of the great lovers of “film noir.” His “film noir” nights at NEC, recently featuring the work of Chabrol and Hitchcock, have reminded me personally of the wealth of images and originality of this genre.  It sent me back to look at The Third Man and I was overcome by just how great this movie is. So . . . I am not just commending it to you. I think I am saying it is essential watching for anyone who is fascinated by the human mind and creativity, and compelling storytelling. (Incidentally, if you’d like to hear music from The Third Man, you might consider attending our Viennese-themed Feast of Music, Feb. 25. More information here.)

P.S. Oh yes . . . the title of this blog. It is taken from the conversation between Holly Martin and Harry Lime as they ride the Ferris wheel in the heart of Vienna (the huge amusement park ride at the Prater is still a Viennese icon).  The words come at the climactic moment of one of the most nihilistic and cynical observations on humanity ever uttered. The words are Harry Lime’s… pronounced in the most off-hand, almost humorous way as he crunches on pills for his indigestion. The speech, undoubtedly the best in the movie and one of the best in any movie, lasts about three minutes and was written not by Graham Greene but by Welles himself who felt that the drama needed such a lift. And if you compare this with the Greene original, he is totally right. Take a look . . .

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4 Responses to The Cuckoo Clock

  1. ruth lepson says:

    The comparison to some aspects of Shakespeare seems just right, Tony, and as you mention each aspect of The Third Man it comes back so intensely I know the movie is a lasting one.

  2. I am glad to see that others see the greatness of The Third Man. Along with Orson Welles the other “star” of the film is actually the city of Vienna. I actually studied in Vienna (after NEC of course) and I can recognise practically every location in the movie, except the sewers. Anyone who knows the people and the city, will tell you how well this film captures the spirit of post WW II Vienna.

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