The Third Man (1949)—Fewer Words

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer visiting Vienna just after World War II when it is carved among the occupying Americans, British, French and Soviets. Though he is there at the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he arrives in the city to discover that this friend has just died—or so it would seem.

The movie is eerie, capturing the out-of-sorts feeling of being an outsider who is trying to move against the wearying riptide of a culture that doesn’t accept you. The moviemakers employ this distant historical context to produce a feeling that is enervating and familiar.

The movie is also modern. I’ve just recently watched other 1940s movies. This one has discovered a trick those other films don’t know. Namely, the actors in a film—where we can see the speaker’s face and thereby pick up nonverbal cues—need not speak in the overfull statements and completed sentences of the live stage. Back then, people were not really so verbal or prosaic as they were presented in the era’s films. It is simply that in the first couple of decades of audible film, we had not yet figured out how to use this medium to accurately depict our world.

The breakthroughs are obvious only in retrospect. Perhaps there is some medium today—I think of e-books—that we are still employing according to dated conventions, no longer valid, so that the medium’s full potential for authenticity and impact have not yet been found.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)—The Laughter Bought with Failure

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Reflecting upon The Treasure of the Sierra Madre brought my thoughts to another movie I had seen, Ocean’s Eleven. The first version, not the remake.

Originally, both films explored a similar theme. Both told stories of men bound together in a scheme to pursue material riches, only to have those riches evaporate in the end, with the men (those who survived) instead enriched in the less sought-after way of being shaped by an experience. I say “originally,” because Ocean’s Eleven changed. In the 2001 remake of the 1960 movie, the grand scheme to obtain wealth grandly succeeds. The sadness in this is the moviemakers’ apparent decision that the original story no longer provided a satisfying ending. The testing and forging of a man’s soul are no longer adequate to resolve a story. Spectacular riches are needed in order to do that.

Thus, I fear a remake of Sierra Madre. I fear the falseness of the ending it would have. In the modern retelling I imagine, the man overcome by avarice is not done in by it, but rather manages to emotionally bootstrap his way into a greater strength of character at the last minute. Wretched bandits do not kill him in the remake, but instead he overpowers those bandits, rushes back to find the companions he betrayed, and redeems himself to them by saving them from peril and saving everyone’s gold. (But all of this is only my imagining. I googled “treasure of the sierra madre remake” and it looks like we are safe.)

Huston, Holt, and Bogart
In the real movie, Humphrey Bogart gives a gripping performance as Dobbs, a man who descends ever deeper into greed, eventually consumed by it. Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) are two impoverished Americans living in Mexico. Meeting an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), they persuade him to lead them into the mountains looking for gold. Unfortunately for Dobbs, they find it. He ultimately betrays his two companions and takes all the gold they had worked to obtain. Then, on his solo flight from them, he is found and overpowered by trio of bandits, a weakened and desperate group that the original three companions could have fended off if they had still been together. The bandits do not even know the dust in the bags on Dobbs’ burros is gold, so they discard it. Much later, Curtin and Howard find these bags torn open in the desert, the strong winds already having blown their contents away.

Howard, the old man, laughs at this. His laugh is joy squeezed through pain, as it dawns on him that the winds are taking the gold back to the very mountains from which the men had worked so hard to extract it. Laughing ever stronger, he says it was worth the ten months of hard labor they spent in the mountains to see this happen and have that experience.

His reaction is shocking, and yet his reaction is the one that this existence calls upon each of us to have, this existence in which nothing is ours to keep. It is the response the new version of Ocean’s Eleven and the remade Sierra Madre of my imagination both do not have the courage to offer, or do not expect their audiences to have the courage to embrace.

With that remade film I keep mentioning, what did happen? Why was there one ending for Ocean’s Eleven at first, then the concession to a less challenging ending when the story was told later? The reason might be something small, such as the changing demographics of moviegoers. Maybe movies today are written for younger people.

Or maybe society today is more infantile than it was, with all of us more dependent on the comforts we enjoy. As our American society has become wealthier, have we undergone the very same transformation as Bogart’s character? A story that acknowledges the value to be found on the other side of the loss of wealth no longer connects with us, because the very thing that this story would have us imagine losing is something to which we now cling with greater fervor.

Then again, the message of the movie may have been just as shocking and powerful back then as it is now. Maybe that’s why it lasted. Indeed, the message of Sierra Madre is about even more than avarice. It is about that only for Dobbs, who is lost and ultimately slain because of the enslavement to his hoard. For the other two men, this story is about failure.

Thankfully, Curtin was not alone when he discovered the empty bags. He had the old prospector there with him in that instant of their comprehension of the loss. The prospector was a guide for him then after all, guiding him by means of laughter through this moment of confusion and pain.

The gold dust blew away. But here is the thing: What if it hadn’t? What if they had kept the gold, brought it home, and spent the money on a sheltered, luxurious life? There still would have been sadness in that life, there still would have been discontentment, and the gold would have blown away simply by a slower means.

This way, Curtin and the prospector would always have the impact of the loss, would always have souls shaped by the intensity of the experience of seeing the riches blown away all at once. As the prospector said, this was worth ten months.

Our great aims and pursuits have value whether or not they bring riches, whether or not they end in the success we sought. Those aims and pursuits might even deliver a greater value if riches or success are not the result. They deliver a greater valueand they deliver a scarier valueif they can somehow bring us to the foot of a realization well beyond what our timid imagination had originally set out to grasp.