The Ephemeral Real, Part V

By Drew JohnsonSeptember 30, 2014

The Ephemeral Real, Part V

(This is Part V in a series on The Ephemeral Real, a meditation on cinema and history)


The Third Man and Vienna

Ephemeral Real V (1)

RUINS CHANGE. They fall farther apart or are stabilized and cleaned and given an outdoor museum treatment. They are defaced and looted or badly conserved. Angkor Wat makes a brief but significant appearance in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. The lovelorn journalist hero stops off from covering de Gaulle’s 1966 visit to Cambodia to speak the sad story of his love for a woman in Hong Kong into a hole in the wall of the ruin. I can’t find good photos of this, but the ruins were quite different then: more jungle still encroaching, for example, and the trees simultaneously propping up and tearing apart the stone buildings were necessarily smaller.

Some ruins, however, are more temporary — like the Costa Concordia — and so their brief time of narrative eligibility is more potent. Angkor Wat’s distended narrative is centuries long. The Windsor Ruins have been ruins four times longer than they were a mansion.

But Vienna, old though it may be, has only been a bombed-out shell once, and briefly. Other films use the rubble of World War II to great effect. Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero does, as does Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, while the recent Noriko Smiling (a book by Adam Mars-Jones) recounts how the script of Late Spring would have included several scenes set against a backdrop of bombed-out Japan, but for the objections of the American censors.

Carol Reed filmed Graham Greene’s script in the late 1940s in Vienna, where the remnants of air raids were all around and the city was able to pass for a museum that had been a battleground. That is, exactly what it was. American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has come to Vienna, broke, at the request of his more successful, more charming friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles at his very best). He arrives to find his friend apparently murdered and apparently the worst sort of criminal. Then again, World War II is just over, and there’s criminality to go round. The evidence is everywhere and also the sense that it’s all another turn on the merry-go-round, maybe even the Ferris wheel that will appear in the movie. Holly Martins tries to get to the bottom of it all, and “blundering around with the worst bunch of racketeers in Vienna,” he’s lucky to escape with his life. Despite being fairly flat-footed and with the help of a beautiful refugee — Lime’s girlfriend — and the world-weary British, he capers across the city streets and the rubble trying to solve the whole puzzle.

Ephemeral Real V (2)

Because of the overt use of the ruins — and ruins that were always perhaps even graves — in these scenes, it’s easy to forget what a playful, odd movie The Third Man is. The narrative question posed is: how evil does your childhood friend have to be before you turn him in to the police? The question posed by the childhood friend is: what does evil amount to with all this evil all around us? Compounded by the fact that this is Orson Welles at his most charming, asking, How evil can I really be?

The answer is: pretty evil. But it’s not a simple murder. Because this is Greene-land, Holly Martins finally gives his friend up to the police for his murders of commerce. Because this is Greene-land, this is the right choice and good choice, just as murdering the titular American in The Quiet American was the good and futile choice. No one will get any pleasure out of doing good, nor will the children who died because of Lime’s bad penicillin be made whole. This is a rare instance of morality moving next to money in a movie, and it suits that the real machinations of the world are onscreen: real consequences, real ruins, the real and surreal.

The postwar choice Holly Martins must make is made against the backdrop of something so total that it does question whether this small morality can possibly still matter. Greene says it must, even if no one will ever care. There’s no satisfaction in the justice, and Holly doesn’t get the girl. Another good man will die apprehending the bad, charming man. All of the last sequence is shot in famous, beautiful medieval sewers. These sewers are almost the ephemeral real, too. Their appearance in The Third Man is more often mentioned — even alluded to in Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”:

Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns

— and by the time we see them the choice has been made: the rubble’s the thing. Using the rubble of Vienna as the monkey bars for chase scenes punctuates the movie’s morality in ways it’s hard to imagine us using all the destruction we’ve suffered or inflicted, no matter how ready to hand.

Alex Cox shot Walker with deliberate anachronisms — a close cousin of the ephemeral real — like machine guns, tracing the 1980s American adventures in Central America back to the 1800s and our many forgotten episodes there. Like the sneaker in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, too. But how much more strange and striking than either of these is the photo of David Lean shooting Great Expectations, with blitzed London all around. The shot in the film presents horse and carriage and period clothes at a very, very low angle so as to capture St. Paul’s unscorched dome but miss the rubble that was the remainder of the neighborhood.

I don’t believe that in New York, a city where you cannot drive without coming across film crew trailers and blocked off streets, any filmmaker ever wove Ground Zero into their drama or comedy. No Kate Hudson and beau strolling by the barriers, were there? Although the barriers were there for 10 years. There were, I suppose, other barriers. And now the images of the World Trade Center everyone sees so sharply in 20 years of film up to 2001 have no companions from 2001 until now. Why do that? The sacred always contains an element of prohibition, but is that the only element?

But to return to Vienna and The Third Man. Behind the balloon man, a feint sent by Orson Welles to pester the police, the collapsed building we see may also be a grave — at the very least, a likely site of death. Serving as the backdrop to this scene — zither music, balloon man, low comedy — death still gets a word in. The ephemeral real is so often foregrounded or isolated like the Windsor Ruins. Here it’s all around, pervasive. By being part of this world, wrapped in this fiction, the ruins are more a part of our own.

Ephemeral Real V (3)


Drew Johnson lives in Maitland, Florida — by way of Mississippi, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia — and has recently completed a novel.

LARB Contributor

Drew Johnson’s grandmother played piano to accompany the silent films showing at her father’s theater in Pearl City, Hawaii, in the 1920s. Johnson’s other grandfather managed the Rialto — a B-movie theater in Danville, Virginia — in the ’40s and ’50s: monster movies, live performers, barbecue. In his own lifetime, Drew has spent some hours staring at the screen. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Literary Review, VQR, New England Review, The Cupboard, and elsewhere. His essays and other writing have appeared or are forthcoming at The Literary Hub, The Paris Review Daily, The Cincinnati Review, The Believer, Bookslut, and elsewhere. He lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts — by way of Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and Florida.


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