May 19, 1950 [The Third Man, Quicksand, House by the River, In a Lonely Place]

Not since the early 1930s has so much crime been committed on screen. But it's driven by more than sheer greed--or even egotism, the little tenement Caesars making it as big as the legit crooks sitting on top of them. No, some kind of Narcissism is at work here, coupled with post-war shrewdness--everything political now, even the heist, the sudden murder--and something else: not self-love, but self-loathing, the mad love collapsing on itself.

In The Third Man, director Carol Reed won't let the world right itself: virtually every frame is tilted, the characters standing on a slippery slope, Valli as Harry's girl patient with Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins, calling him "Harry" every once in a while, just to keep the ball rolling down that Viennese hill, the streets and sewers curving toward one another, changing places. Harry has no conscience, and Orson Welles plays him so easily I get nervous that it's all real--and of course it is, Grahame Green's screenplay notwithstanding--so ironic, so ready to let us see him winking at us--with that zither playing throughout, cheerfully hysterical--but also beautiful, like the wet streets Holly wanders through--and up to the top of the Ferris wheel, looking down at Harry's moving dots--that's us, at his service.

Quicksand is also pretty slippery, dragging down Mickey Rooney--grown up now, but not turning into Jimmy Cagney--just getting in deeper, so far down he runs into Peter Lorre, the penny arcade dim in the shadows, the two little men playing smiling tug-of-war with the handkerchief that could hang Rooney's grease monkey--and I think that scene was improvised, Rooney and Lorre almost smiling at each other as they decide to be crooks. And while there's some kind of bottom to the pit, Rooney can't do much by himself, his sure footing of little use, his glad-hand and grin failing him in the dark.

As I watched House by the River, I kept noting how professional it was, put together like a fine watch, the strange story of a turn-of-the-century madman--well, mad for himself, his pleasures: His maid takes a bath, he stands outside, hears the water gurgle down the drain, smiles as though he's there with her, soap on his hands. And the river itself, like the Thames in Great Expectations, a black snake that tempts--but saves, in a way, the place where everything comes back. And it is a haunted movie, curtains swirling like the hair of a drowned woman. I hadn't caught the director's name in the credits, and hurried to the poster outside: Fritz Lang, who has known for decades about insanity as the loss of morality, the inhumanity that marks us so often as human.

--Oh, and Bogart goes insane too, In a Lonely Place, where Hollywood snarls at itself--relieving us of those duties so we can watch Bogart's screenwriter give in to rages, frightening Gloria Grahame so deeply she cannot stay--and there's insanity for you: driving away Grahame, with whom I am in love--my wife forgives me, understands I cannot resist a small chin and a clever brain, so smart; you can see it in her eyes, looking through you, keeping her own counsel--but devoted to a dangerous man, whose own eyes are drawn down so far in sadness he can't see straight, and falls down into a well he'd dug himself--

--or did he? The crime film ends here, in a place that once more feels like Caligari's cabinet, off-center and ruled by compulsions, a dream-within-a-dream, everything going out like candles when any one of them wakes.


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