by Hillel F. Damron
My love affair with The Third Man began many years ago. It was a sunny, hot summer day in Tel Aviv, and the cool and darkness of the small art-deco cinema theater–I believe it was the Paris Cinema Theater, creaking wooden chairs and all–was too tempting to resist, even if the advertised film was an old black and white film, a British-American collaborative effort. I was a fresh film student then in a small, off-Dizengoff Street private school, taught exclusively by an old, grumpy Jewish émigré professor from Poland. According to the legend percolating in the city’s sidewalk cafés, he had taught Roman Polanski the alphabet of filmmaking, which made a big impression on me. I was all into the “auteur theory” of cinema back then, looking down on anything that did not come from Italian or French directors. Yet something in that film’s title, the premise of the two film stars of Citizen Kane going at it again, and the allure of the beautiful, sad-eyed woman between them in the poster, attracted my attention and curiosity.
I came out of the theater enchanted. Or “sold,” as the favorite Hebrew slang-word of the time would best describe it. I couldn’t believe it was still daylight outside, and had a hard time adjusting my eyes and state of mind to that reality. I strolled down to the Madrilenian shore and stayed there by the sunny beach till sunset, drinking “upside-down coffee” (or café au lait for the Starbucks generation) at a boardwalk café and dreaming of Vienna, of war and peace, of spies, criminals and beautiful, unattainable dark-haired women. Back then, hardly a year after finishing my mandatory army service and leaving my kibbutz–where I was born to parents who had escaped somehow that same Europe the film had depicted, surviving the Holocaust with scars to last a lifetime–I was still as naïve, city-wise, as a wide-eyed deer coming out of the woods and hitting a busy road. I never even used money, in the true sense of the word, until arriving in the big city. But my head was full of dreams and glory.
Of which The Third Man, like no other film before or since, supplied plenty; ammunition for the soul and inspiration for the mind, as it were. So much so that, come to think of it now, it may have played a role in shaping the course of my life. It would be presumptuous of me to elaborate further on the film, which won the Cannes’ Grand Prix in 1949, especially since so much has been said and written about it by critics and filmmakers alike, including praise for the script by Graham Greene (safe here in my bookcase). However, this I will say from my own perspective: Here was a film that began as an after-war-film, espionage and all, progressed into a murder mystery, crime and punishment as vague and as shadowy as its black and white photography, then examined male friendship and betrayal in depth, only to end up being all about the essence of love–love among the ruins if ever I saw it. Its final scene is the most profound, image-statement on unrequited love ever recorded on film. (No wonder other filmmakers, Scorsese included, have paid homage to it in their films.)
Of course, I did not discover all these hidden treasures on that first viewing of the film in Tel Aviv, where and when small art cinema theaters still existed, but almost 20 years later in Burbank, California, where I caught it on television one evening, and fell in love with it all over again. I recorded it on VHS, and came back to it on Halloween Eve, maybe due to the fact that my American wife and small child neglected to remember that that day was also my birthday. They concentrated instead, heart and soul, on tricking or treating outside the house. Left to my own devices, I filled my single crystal wineglass with French brandy, collected my cat onto my lap and watched the film in solitude. And never stopped doing so–including the French brandy and the cat, still such a big star in my life and in the film–ever since, year after year.
And it so happened that on Halloween Eve of last year, I had a rendezvous with The Third Man for the 25th time in a row. I was not alone on that occasion: A good friend watched the film with me, as together we “celebrated the standstill of time,” to borrow a line from All Hallows’ Eve, a poem by Czelaw Milosz. Through the slightly open window my 66th year was sneaking out quietly, unapologetically, just as 67 was knocking on the door, impatiently demanding to come in. The young man, with whom I had developed a friendship throughout the passing year, was watching the old black and white film somewhat reluctantly. Other “victims” like him–family and friends, male and females, young and old–had fallen prey to my passion in a similar fashion over the years, and had gone through similar experiences with The Third Man and me.
Topping all these October 31st night screenings must be the one that was held two years ago on the tip of the Grand Canyon, in a lodge-room after a celebratory dinner, where on a queen-sized bed my younger son and I watched the film together on my laptop computer. He watched it attentively. It surprised me quite a bit when, as the film came to an end, he told me that he had seen it once before. He was maybe 14 then, and was alone in our house for some reason. He had turned on the TV set and watched the film on an old-movie channel, all the way to the end. He remembered it quite vividly, and how much he had liked it at the time. It was a heartwarming and beautiful birthday present to hear him say that.
And so it goes, on and on, year after year. As the very British Major Calloway “steps on it,” and drives away with his jeep; as autumn leaves keep falling gently down on the narrow, empty Viennese boulevard; as the Czechoslovakian beauty Anna keeps walking straight ahead, passing by the man who loves her so desperately without even looking at him once; and as that man, the down-on-his-luck American writer Holly Martins lights another sad cigarette, leaning on a broken wooden cart all alone in the world and in the frame; as the last beats of the zither strings that have played so majestically throughout the film die down into a complete, final silence–so comes to a close another year of my life, highs and lows aplenty. But then, just as “The End” title-card fades into black, a new year begins, bringing with it the promise of meeting The Third Man one more time at its end.
Hillel F. Damron is a filmmaker, writer and blogger and was the winner of the 2011 Moment Memoir Contest.