Director's Cut: Every shadow tells a story: Michael Winner on the eccentricity, boldness and Hitchcockian surprises of The Third Man
Friday 07 October 1994
One scene I like takes place between Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli in her apartment. They're talking about Harry Lime, and she drops in this line about her cat. You think: 'Well, who cares?' The film's been rattling along a bit up to now, and this is not the most riveting conversation in it. But it's the old Hitchcock thing: you have a long scene where nothing much happens, and then suddenly you whip the bed back and there's a shrunken human head.
So, in The Third Man, then you get that wonderful cut to the darkened doorway downstairs, and you see a cat rubbing itself against a man's shiny, immaculate shoes. Some lights go on opposite and for a second they suddenly reveal Harry Lime. It's the first time you see him. And you just get this marvellous little Orson Welles smile before he runs off.
I've seen The Third Man probably about 60 times, and what strikes me most is its eccentricity. To have a single instrument, the zither, playing the entire music track, was very startling. It was very technically brave in that day to tilt the camera and to have freakish shadows on walls in almost surrealistic sets. I used
those enormous shadows a lot in the Death Wish films and I know how expensive it is - you need
five enormous arc lights, more or less on top of each other, to produce the one shadow.
The script was brilliantly explained. The number of times people say in that film: 'Harbin was the man at the hospital' - they never stop telling you about Harbin. So that, when you finally open the grave where Harry Lime is meant to be and - oh my God] It's Harbin] - you know exactly who he is. They plumbed it relentlessly. If I told a scriptwriter today to keep reminding the audience of something that's coming an hour later, he'd say: 'Oh, we can't put that in, people wouldn't say that in real life.'
Everything the British Film Institute does is either not worth doing or controversial. But the restoration of prints of old films that would otherwise go to dust is incontrovertibly of great value and, when they said they were doing this, I said I would be happy to pay for one. It seems to me that any director or producer who can afford it should be ashamed of themselves if they don't.
Michael Winner presents a new print of 'The Third Man' at the NFT on 28 Oct at 8.45pm. Details: 071-928 3232
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