Film: Also Showing

the Third Man Carol Reed (PG), The Polish Bride Karim Traidia (15), L'arche du desert Mohamed Chouik (12)
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The Independent Culture
GRAHAM GREENE was generally unlucky when it came to having his novels adapted for the screen, but his script for Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), as he admitted, "was never written to be read but only to be seen". Perhaps in that difference lay his unwonted success, and the film's enduring brilliance. Its 50th-anniversary restoration offers a fresh opportunity to marvel.

On the surface, it is a conventional suspense thriller, set forbiddingly in the bleak, rubble-strewn streets of postwar Vienna. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in search of his friend Harry Lime, only to be told that he has just been killed in a road accident. Irked by the cool attitude of the military police, Martins begins his own investigation, where he learns that Lime was the very worst kind of black-market profiteer. His discovery is complicated by his attraction to Lime's actress girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli), who refuses to countenance her late lover's moral turpitude.

Greene couches it as a mischievous tragi-comedy with occasional forays into the grotesque. Central to this is Martins' professional self-loathing, the hack-writer caught in a plot even he wouldn't dare make up: forced to escape from an evening lecture in which he has bored the audience into submission, he is then required to make an emergency escape through a back window - where he is bitten by a parrot. Greene torments him without respite, saving his most poignant humiliation until the very last shot (later borrowed by Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye). As for Welles, his late, great appearance as Lime (pictured below) is comparable only to Brando's in Apocalypse Now, and his smirk on first being spied in the doorway remains an iconic movie moment.

All the same, the film's most enjoyable performance is Trevor Howard's as the urbane British major, Calloway, whose mockery of the naive Martins is the source of the film's best laughs. While Welles's speech about the cuckoo-clock has been the most often quoted, I've always preferred Calloway's dismissive verdict on Martins' latest pot-boiler: "I never knew there were snake-charmers in Texas."

Reed's evocation of Vienna is wonderfully abetted by cinematographer Robert Krasker, whose skewed angles and chiaroscuro lighting lend the city a spooked, fairground desolation. And Anton Karas's famous zither score contrives a mood that is both jaunty and ominous, answering the tone of Greene's screenplay precisely.

Karim Traidia's strange and beautiful film The Polish Bride throws you a feint in its opening minutes. A young woman, battered and bleeding, stumbles through a city street at night, on the run from who knows what. Next morning she is found in a ditch by a burly son of toil, who takes her home to nurse her. We are all set for a thriller, but then it slows into a meditative two-hander.

She is a Polish emigree named Anna (Monic Hendrickx), on the run from her pimp; he is a Dutch farmer, Henk (Jaap Spijkers), threatened with foreclosure by the bank. We discover this only gradually, since he is monkishly taciturn and she can't speak Dutch. Once she adopts the role of housekeeper, however, the pair settle into a domestic routine that falters towards friendship. She cooks him a Polish supper, he teaches her how to ride the tractor. In time, they can even share a quiet joke: who'd have thought that the words "a three-blade mold-board plough" could achieve a comic resonance?

The most telling scenes, all the same, are those that depend on looks rather than words, such as the moment when Henk finds Anna trying on one of his late mother's dresses. His reaction is poised on a knife-edge, and it is a testament to the subtlety of Spijkers' performance that we can see Henk's internal struggle with himself. Hendrickx, too, is very good, conveying the trauma of exile and abuse in her haunted, slightly vulpine eyes. Shot beneath smudged Lowland skies, The Polish Bride stumbles once, briefly, at the end, but by then it had more than got me on its side.

L'Arche du Desert is a sombre tale of ethnic antipathies spilling into outright violence. When a romance springs up between a man and a woman from nearby villages, not even the pleading of the elders can prevent hostilities breaking out. Mohamed Chouik's film examines the way water becomes the focal point of the conflict - pollute that and destruction is mutually assured. The film is certainly good-looking in its framing of tribespeople against vast desert spaces, though I could have lived without the women's expressions of lamentation: the louder they became, the less I felt inclined towards sympathy.

AQ

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