Howard Jacobson: The timeless allure of a disillusioned, unhappy woman in a raincoat

Women are unable to look that way now. You cannot be disillusioned and unhappy in a rah-rah skirt

Wednesday 01 April 2009 20:53

The death of the Italian actress Alida Valli, obituarised in this newspaper last week, compels me to confront a long dormant preoccupation, if you will allow that a preoccupation need not be a constant burden to the conscious mind. There is something my soul appears to have been busy with, let's leave it at that, and the name Alida Valli has awakened it. That something is rainwear.

Alida Valli, for those who can take rainwear or leave it, played the part of Anna Schmidt, lover of Harry Lime, in the film The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene. She did not, in that film, have a lot to do - by and large Graham Greene's women don't have a lot to do - though what she did no one who saw it could forget.

Essentially she had to look empty of feeling or passion. It was from Alida Valli's portrayal of a woman empty of feeling and passion that I formed my earliest impression - my mother and my grandmother aside - of woman in general.

That this was not unconnected with Anna Schmidt's being Czech, having to survive the Russian quarter of an edgy post-war Vienna, and being the lover of Harry Lime who lived in shadows and only ever showed his face when he could be certain there would be no light on it, I understood.

Even at the early age I saw the film I grasped its cold-war cold-heart politics. But I nonetheless believed it depicted something eternal - allow me to say eternally irresistible - about women: they were disillusioned and unhappy, and they never looked better than when disillusioned and unhappy in a raincoat.

If it did depict something eternal there is a question to be asked, I accept, as to why women, at least as represented by film stars, are unable to look that way now. Tailoring is one explanation. The youth cult is another. You cannot be disillusioned and unhappy when you're dressed in a rah-rah skirt. But I suspect the real answer to the question lies in aerobics. The whole point of Alida Valli in The Third Man is that she has no zip. Get women bouncing about and that's their desolation shot.

Though Alida Valli, as we have said, does not have a lot to do but look beautifully unhappy in a raincoat, it is not for nothing that she is given the film's final say, that's if you can have a say without saying anything. I will let Tom Vallance, Valli's obituarist for The Independent, describe that famous finale. "After Lime's funeral, Anna is seen in the distance walking towards the camera down a long lane in the cemetery." [The long lane in the cemetery of my soul, reader.]

"Waiting to one side is Lime's former friend Holly who has fallen in love with her.' [As of course had I.] "Her face emotionless, Anna continues walking straight past him with no acknowledgement as, to the accompaniment of Anton Karas's zither music, the film ends." That a zither never failed to play in my head every time I fell in love thereafter, I ascribe to the power of that scene. But something is missing from Tom Vallance's description. The raincoat. How, in his otherwise attentively detailed account, can he leave out the most salient detail of all - Alida Valli walking towards the camera and then past it into a loveless future ina "raincoat"?

So puzzled have I been by this omission these last few days, yet so unwilling am I to see the film again, for fear it will not stand up to memory, or that someone has airbrushed Alida Valli's raincoat and put her in jeans and trainers, or worse, left the raincoat but made her wear something under it - for surely we were always to understand that she was naked beneath that raincoat, that having to go without hope had reduced her to actual no less than spiritual nudity, that desolation in a lovely woman expresses itself in a raincoat and nothing else - so fearful of the distorting hands of censorship and time was I, in short, that I consulted an internet site called, succinctly, Rainwear Films.

As Rainwear Films is specifically for those with a "rainwear interest" I did not intend lingering long in it. It is one thing to like an unhappy woman in a raincoat, it is another to have a "rainwear interest". I did, however, expect the site to yield what I was looking for. But guess what? Though it mentions Lana Turner in "yellow storm gear", Pier Angeli "inside a period trenchcoat", Anita Ekberg in " translucent plastic", Sophia Loren in "British style rainwear" , Suzy Parker in a "Burberry", Greta Garbo in an "oilskin slicker", Joan Crawford in a "wet, shiny cape", Myrna Loy in "a white rubber", Virginia Bruce in "a typical 1940s cut semi-transparent knee-length hooded mackintosh", and countless more, there is not a word of Alida Valli in The Third Man.

It is only when I come upon reference to Les Yeux Sans Visage, a film about a surgeon who transplants faces, and whose leather-coated assistant Alida Valli plays - in one scene dragging a dead girl, nude in a man's mackintosh, across rough terrain - that I wonder whether my unconscious has been transplanting raincoats unbeknown to me.

I am not aware of seeing Les Yeux Sans Visage, but men my age are not aware of most things. Could it be that in The Third Man Alida Valli is simply wearing a coat full stop, and I have, so to speak, undressed and transposed her into a belted skin-grazing raincoat for reasons my psyche alone can understand?

It wouldn't surprise me. We misremember and misplace what we read and see routinely. Because art is collaborative, our engagement with it is a species of interference. We cannot read or watch anything without new creating it. There is no reason to get excited about this process as a contemporary phenomenon, the way Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, did in a speech last week, frothing about the new audience that "doesn't want to just sit there but to take part, debate, create, communicate, share".

Portals, platforms, interactivity - these are just punch-drunk terms for what we've been doing since we sat in circles and moved characters from The Iliad to The Odyssey. You make the programmes, Mr Thompson, our imaginations will do the rest. All your techno brave new world-speak, confusing matter with mere medium, is hooey. You can dress up your unculturedness in all the jargon of electronic opportunity you like - we know when someone is naked under their rainwear.

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