Double Bill: Peter Schwabach

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The Independent Culture
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989)

THE THIRD MAN is about an American writer (played by Joseph Cotten) who arrives in Vienna to visit a friend, only to be told that his friend is dead. The friend has been selling bogus penicillin, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths. Cotten discovers half way through that his friend faked his own death.

The film was shot just after the Second World War when the city was in ruins. There are haunting images of underground passages, ex-Nazis, and people scrabbling to make a living. The medicine black marketeer is played by Orson Welles, who is depicted as charismatic, charming and beautiful.

Cotten writes fiction, ironically, about good guys and bad guys. But it's still hard for Cotten to betray his friend. Everything in Vienna is very grey. Parts of the city are controlled by different countries and each exerts immoral pressure on the citizens.

There are two strands to Crimes and Misdemeanors. An eminent professor is being feted in his community because he has done a lot for charity and been a great asset to medicine. Unbeknown to his family he has been having an affair with an air hostess (played by Anjelica Huston). She is extremely agitated at not sharing his life and threatens to confront his wife on the eve of this big celebration. The doctor faces a terrible dilemma because he doesn't want his wife upset or his reputation tarnished.

In desperation he orders a contract killing. You understand why he doesn't want his world destroyed. And Anjelica Huston is this terribly anxious and uptight hostess. The audience wants her dead.

The second strand is with Woody Allen playing a documentary film-maker who never makes anything commercial. His wife's brother is a famous television producer (played by Alan Alda), who is tired of being poor. The wife persuades her brother to let Allen do a documentary about him.

Allen has the choice of an adulatory film or one that reveals the hypocrite and showman that Alda really is. In a final complication, Allen is attracted to the executive producer, played by Mia Farrow, whom Alda is trying to seduce.

In both films you are torn between the characters, and disturbed by the moral dimension. The characters who make the "right" moral choices lose out - they don't get the girl.