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The Magnificent Third Amberson

September 4, 2020
                            The Magnificent Third Amberson


            I have a project I have worked on off and on for at least seven years called "My 501 Favorite Movies", which might be subtitled a "a biography through film."   It’s about my favorite movies, but also about why I liked them, why this movie worked for me, where I was in my life at the time that I saw this movie, etc.    I don’t know whether I am ever going to finish that project and get it published, but in any case, because of the discussion going on in "Hey, Bill", I decided to take my comments about a couple of movies and make a little Bill James Online article out of them.   I had ranked "The Magnificent Ambersons" as my 212th favorite movie ever, and "The Third Man" as my 4th favorite ever.  Just for the hell of it I will throw in my comments about the 1970s movie "I Walk the Line."  Thanks for reading. 



212.  The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

            Many of you will remember Avalon, a 1990 Barry Levinson film which uses television as symbol of the disintegration of the family.  The Magnificent Ambersons, set about 1918, uses the automobile in a similar fashion, illustrating the disintegration of a prominent Midwestern family through the introduction of the automobile into the life of the community.   The film was Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, which places it in a similar position to Avalon, Levinson following up The Diner and Tin Men with a film that obviously has more money behind it but fewer of the ragged edges that made the earlier works original and engrossing.

            After the immense success of Citizen Kane Orson Welles’ sense of his own greatness starts to emerge, which is not carefully stated; he was always arrogant, but over time it starts to show more in his movies.  Also, the next time I publish this I will take the word "immense" out of the previous sentence.  For The Ambersons Welles sent the studio a 2 ½ hour epic movie that the studio executives thought was a hippopotamus with wings, wasn’t going to fly, so they cut more than an hour out of it and burned the footage.   Still, the film was nominated for Best Picture and several other awards.   Not a lot of people under 60 have seen it, and the few other people I know who have seen it think it doesn’t work, but it worked for me.  It’s kind of a short epic with some of the gas let out. 


173.  I Walk the Line (1970)  This isn’t the Johnny Cash Biopic; this is a 1970 movie about a sheriff (Gregory Peck) whose life unravels after he gets involved with a white-trash family living in his jurisdiction.  I love Johnny Cash, as I am sure I have mentioned, and the movie uses eleven songs written by Cash, two others performed by him.   The song Flesh and Blood was written for this movie. The songs are expertly produced.   I own God-knows-how-many versions of Johnny Cash singing I Walk the Line, but the version of it that appears in this movie is the best version of it I have ever heard.  I don’t know why; I’m not a sound engineer, I’m not a sound anything.   Something works.

            Anyway, it’s a good movie, actually a serious movie about people making difficult choices.  Tuesday Weld stars as the love interest.   I am guessing that the name "Tuesday Weld" means very little to most people in the 21st century, but she was what was referred to at the time as a sexpot or a sex kitten; I know those terms are inappropriate now, but don’t blame me for the 1960s.   She had actually starred in a 1960 film called Sex Kittens Go to College.

            Several of the sexpot actresses—Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch, Jayne Mansfield—were not "real actresses"; they were people who worked hard at giving off a sexual vibe on a screen.  They could not step out of that role.  (Ann Magaret COULD act, but got vicious reviews early in her career because she was so sexy that people assumed she couldn’t.)  Tuesday Weld, to me, was unique in that she radiated that sense so effortlessly that it enabled her to act at the same time.  You always got the feeling that if you met her coming out of a supermarket, that would be who she was.  

            There is an old saying that you can play older than you are but you can’t play younger than you are.  At the time of this movie she was in her late 20s, playing a woman aged 16 to 19, and you would never guess; she looks 16.   She always had that.   She modeled from a very young age, had a difficult childhood including nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, and was in Hollywood movies before she was a teenager.  She was in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, a bit part, when she was 12.   She had a role for one year on the old TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, took over the show and drove their ratings way up, left the show to do movies after one year. 

            In the mid-sixties she was a movie star with several hits, forgettable movies now but hits at the time.  She had trouble handling success.   She turned down an astonishing list of roles, saying that she turned down Bonnie and Clyde because she sensed that the movie would be a huge hit, and she just couldn’t deal with the pressures that that created.  An overly-attractive model at a very young age, she was the victim of the wrong kind of attention from men throughout her childhood.  In 1962 she was asked by Stanley Kubrick to play Lolita, but turned it down, saying that she didn’t need to play Lolita, she WAS Lolita.  She turned down key roles in True Grit, Rosemary’s Baby, and many others, but continued to act, taking roles that enabled her to step outside the movie star persona.   She could act, but she couldn’t do the media stuff, the TV shows and interviews and star turn appearances.  She continued to act into the 21st century. 



4.  The Third Man (1949)  Written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed (who was a man), The Third Man opens at a breakneck pace.   In the first four to five minutes of screen time the movie runs through the opening credits, brings Holly Martins to Vienna, where Martins checks into his residence, finds out that his friend Harry Lime, who brought him to Vienna, has been murdered, attends his funeral, and meets or at least lays eyes on the principle characters of the movie—Lime’s co-conspirator Kurtz, the police major who directs the investigation, and the love interest—and also explains via narration that post-war Vienna is divided into sectors controlled by different nations, and explains via narration who Martins is and why he has come to Vienna.

            We think of The Third Man as an Orson Welles movie, although it isn’t; Welles did not write or direct the movie, appears only in four scenes, and has less than ten lines in three of those, combined.   He really has only one extended scene, although he is quite remarkable in that scene, which is the most memorable scene in the movie.  Welles addresses Joseph Cotten repeatedly as "Old man", sometimes using that phrase warmly, at other times menacingly, and Welles supposedly ad-libbed the most famous line of the film, about the Borgias and the cuckoo clock (although the line appears in the typewritten script for the movie, which is easily available on line.)  Still, Welles has less than ten minutes of screen time—as opposed to Joseph Cotten, who is on the screen almost the entire movie, and has, I would guess, 250 to 300 lines.   It’s Joseph Cotten’s movie, supported by Trevor Howard and Alida Valli. 

            Alida Valli is supposed to be a brilliant actress, although you would never know it from this movie.  The chief flaw in the movie is the over-reliance on the Zither music, which is very effective in setting the mood, but which, on repeated watchings, makes you want to shout "WILL YOU STOP STRUMMING THAT DAMNED ZITHER."  The plot is very complicated, in some ways akin to Chinatown, but even more complex.  I confess that having recently watched it for the seventh or eighth time, I made plot connections which it appears the viewer was supposed to make on the spot. . .more of them every time, so that I suppose that if I saw it again I would figure out something else.  More successfully than any other film, The Third Man evokes the sense of a Graham Greene novel, the sense of being immediately, in the first paragraph of the book, drawn into a world both exotic and despairing.  Carol Reed and Graham Greene were good friends and worked together on several movies, but none of the others gets the sense of a Graham Greene novel exactly right.  Greene didn’t write this as a novel; he wrote it as a screenplay, and then liked the story so much that he later developed it into a novel.  

            Joseph Cotten carries the movie with a character much like Alden Pyle in The Quiet American.  He is large and "bright", naïve and blustery and blundering; in some way he always seems bright while whoever he interacts with seems dark.  Maybe "loud" gets the image better; he is loud while everyone else is quiet.  He speaks boldly while others choose their words as if tripping through a minefield.   Holly Martins has no idea he is wandering through a minefield.  This is also true of Alden Pyle in The Quiet American, but while Alden Pyle is a figure of contempt, Holly Martins is the moral center of the movie.   Greene did not like America or Americans, who, in his view, combined dangerous self-confidence with unreasoning optimism.   Holly Martins—the only American in the movie, other than the malevolent Harry Lime--very much represents how Greene thought of Americans, except that he is somehow likable. 

            Contrasting The Third Man with Chinatown, both movies are about wealth and corruption.  They have a similar feel, and you can chart the characters in one film against those in the other, and you know who is in which role.  Chinatown is about Big Events, about the effort to own the future, while The Third Man is a much smaller and more personal story, corruption and wealth literally hiding in the sewers to try to survive.   But while Chinatown—based around real events which had occurred 40-some years before the movie was made—still seems real and present, The Third Man evokes that sense of elusive ethereal malice, the sense of removal from sunshine into deep shadows which is central to Graham Greene’s books, and does so while telling a story which would have happened only a year or two earlier.   It is set in post-war Vienna, and the movie was released on October 12, 1949—exactly one week after I was born. 

            Greene likes Holly Martins a little because Martins is his self-projection for the story.  In many or most Graham Greene stories there is a writer or journalist who is a central figure, and who seems to represent Greene himself.  Holly Martins is that character in this movie.  There is a comic scene, really the only comic scene in the movie, in which Martins, a writer of westerns, is dragooned into speaking before an audience which expects him to be a highbrow author, and asks him questions about The Stream of Conscious and to what extent he was influenced by James Joyce.  Martins doesn’t know what they’re talking about and says that his main influence as a writer was Zane Grey.   The audience turns on him, and the room empties quickly.  One can react to this in either of two ways:  either that Martins is a low-rent pulp writer unworthy of the attention of serious people, or that the audience is a group of pretentious fools who are trying to make literature into something that it was never intended to be.  One gets the feeling—perhaps only because Martins is the protagonist of the movie and we are living in his world—but one gets the feeling that it is the latter.   The scene doesn’t really fit in the movie; it gives a sense of being wedged in there.   My read on the scene is that Graham Greene has been there and done that, that Greene is looking out at that audience through Joseph Cotten’s bewildered eyes, wondering what in the hell these people are talking about.   I think that Greene pounded that scene into the movie to make a statement about James Joyce and the Stream of Conscious, but to make the statement without leaving his fingerprints on it; even Holly Martins doesn’t really say anything about James Joyce.  The implied statement is "I don’t get it."  But maybe I am reading that into the scene because I don’t get it, either.      


COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

"It's not the German Gin--" great line. Which is mangled by me all the time-but it still works.
10:14 AM Sep 11th
The famous line in The Third Man about the Borgias and cuckoo clocks was funny but wrong. During the Renaissance the Swiss may have had the most powerful army in Europe. They have many firsts, including Einstein’s theories, milk chocolate, vitamins, and the self-winding watch.

On the other hand the Swiss did not invent the cuckoo clock.
6:28 PM Sep 6th
The Third Man influenced the 007 series. Assistant director Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger and some subsequent films in the series. Bernard Lee and Robert Brown play M. Geoffrey Keen played the Minister of Defense.

The Living Daylights had a scene on Vienna’s famous Ferris wheel. It also had an ominous balloon salesman at the park.
6:20 PM Sep 6th
I like the Tuesday Weld blurb. I remember in the Cincinnati Kid that she was the rather young and innocent companion of Steve McQueen while Ann-Margaret played Weld's friend and Karl Malden's husband (who was McQueen's best friend). The sexpot, conniving Margaret was intent on seducing McQueen nonetheless.

Weld and Margaret had quite a few scenes together and Weld was very naïve and quiet while Margaret was worldly and outgoing.

Anyway, McQueen and Weld were really kindred spirits. Bad childhoods and reputations for wild and excessive living and having to grow up early in show business because of all that. Anyway, I've heard Weld called the female McQueen in that respect.

My Best-Carey
5:34 PM Sep 6th
I'd definitely read this. Any update on the Kansas book? THAT's the one I'd most like to see.
3:24 PM Sep 6th
I would encourage you to finish and publish the book. I find the topic interesting, to say the least, and I think it would be worth the money to purchase it and the time to read it. I don't think I ever wasted my money or time reading anything that you have ever written. I look forward to it if and when you finish your project.

3:01 PM Sep 6th
For what it's worth, the literary term is "stream of consciousNESS." Unless of course the movie (which I haven't seen) actually says "conscious."

NOW it is, but I don't think it was in the 1940s. I think in the 1940s people the common phrase was stream of conscious.
12:01 AM Sep 6th
Speaking of iconoclastic. . . One of the things that is holding up the book is that I have Porky's, Private School and Blame it on Rio on the list and am determined to leave them there, but am not sure how to explain this to the audience without being scalded by the Woke Generation.
12:00 AM Sep 6th
For what it's worth, the literary term is "stream of consciousNESS." Unless of course the movie (which I haven't seen) actually says "conscious."

11:59 PM Sep 5th
I appreciate all of your warm comments and, God Willing, they will push me to finish the project, in which case I should remember to give each of you a copy. I believe the music may have won the Academy Award for The Third Man, not sure of that, but I will say it never bothered me until I re-watched the film too quickly after another viewing, and the incessant plink of the zither started to wear on me. Let's see; I have Chariots of Fire ranked #304, with a comment that for a while we were all sick to death of it, The original Star Wars I ranked 61st, and I don't think any of the follow-ups made the list. Fallen Idol and He Walked by Night, I have never seen. Forest Gump is #56.

One of my "indicators" to rank a movie is how strong an impression it made on me. There are movies that I saw only once, 50 years ago, but which I still remember quite vividly, and there are movies that I saw 5 years ago about which I can't remember anything except that I saw it. (Like my wife. Every time we check out Netflix, she wants to watch something that we watched 2 months ago, only she has forgotten that we watched it. If we did watch it, we'd get 3 minutes into it, she'd recognize it and we'd have to go to something else, because she NEVER re-watches a movie, even after 20 years.)
11:49 PM Sep 5th
[i]The Magnificent Ambersons[i] (the movie) was based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. It' set in Indianapolis (my home town) around the beginning of the 20th century, and is about (among other things) the collapse of the "old rich" and the arrival of the "new rich"--particularly those who became rich by producing automobiles. I spent about a year (off and on) working on a history of that time period in Indianapolis of which my grandfather was a part--he went broke, having bet on the wrong car--the Premier, a relatively high-end vehicle, produced in Indianapolis and selling for something like $1500 at a time when the average family income was about $500. (Relative to income, that'd be like a car selling for $150,000 today). He turned down the opportunity to own the Ford dealership in Indy; he thought the Model T was a piece of junk. (The Model T was selling for about $350 at the time, or, relative to income, about $35,000 today). I never managed to complete it, but I do occasionally think about digging out what I did and seeing whether I think it might have new life.
2:08 PM Sep 5th
A few comments on the Third Man. My mother was from Vienna, I have spent a lot of time there. So this became a singular family favorite of ours, we would watch it every couple of years. We knew it by heart, really, including the German or should I say Viennese language bits.

My mom used to say Welles deserved ten Oscars just for the expression on his face when we first meet him. If you think of the buildup of the character before that point, and the weight the character has to carry, there is something to it.

1:23 PM Sep 5th
Man, I'd pay for this book RIGHT NOW -- maybe you can come to some arrangement with Amazon, to sell some books for Kindle only. This is original, meaty stuff -- with Jamesian iconoclasm all over the place (a good thing)
8:30 AM Sep 5th
Bill, thank you for writing about The Third Man, a film that's been in my own top 10 for a long time. I perhaps am even more fond of it because I like that the zither music goes throughout the film. In a way, maybe that's a kind of environmental element - that wherever Holly goes he's always confronted with the difficulties of being in this foreign place - the language, the attitudes, the bureaucracy of the partitions, not to mention the mystery he's trying to unravel. So the music is part of that foreign-ness that's he's always surrounded by.

Fallen Idol has always been another favorite- another Carol Reed film with Graham Greene screenplay.
Did you ever see He Walked By Night? It's a 1948 film noir starring Richard Basehart as a psychotic killer. I mention it for its fabulous cinematography and very similar tail end to The Third Man, though it was a year ahead of it. Not nearly the film The Third Man was, but visually terrific.
2:12 AM Sep 5th
I liked the Third Man, kinda weird and the zither music made it a little like a Universal Monster movie (Igor playing the violin in many Frankenstein movies and it was set in where Frankenstein Monster and the werewolf roamed). But it does show a unique time when the Allies occupied Vienna and carved it up into their own zones, like Berlin. The Magnificent Ambersons, very stilted and a period piece, but fun to watch. Citizen Kane, ok movie to me. All the camera angle changes, change of time flow, etc., did that make a more entertaining movie? Or are just wannabe experts who say 'you don't understand true art' correct. IMHO to be a great movie it both has to be both popular and not pablum: Gone With The Wind, Forest Gump,
Casablanca, ..... I would rule out all Star Wars flicks: too much pablum. And Chariots of Fire - has there ever been a movie more overrated? It tried to be the Citizen Kane of its time, what a piece of crap ......
12:43 AM Sep 5th
Count me in as a member of the Tuesday Weld fan club. Sexy, beautiful, and a gifted actress, she never got the roles her talent merited. She's at her best in Lord Love A Duck and Pretty Poison.
10:22 PM Sep 4th
One critic called Tuesday Weld the "female Marlon Brando."

Right there with you about "Ambersons"​
7:05 PM Sep 4th
Tuesday Weld is one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses (or is that my teenage libido talking?).​
5:40 PM Sep 4th
*The Third Man-agree with about everything you say here, save I like Alida Valli's acting more than you do. It's great. Much better than 'Kane'.

*I think Ursula was a decentish actor, for what it's worth. Yes it's true Ann Margret was a bunch better than the lot you mentioned. Raquel Welch's acting is like Trump's being Orange, it's part of the act but it's not what you're paying for.

*Ambersons has it's moments.
2:31 PM Sep 4th
Bill, in case the mistake is in your manuscript and you would like to correct it, the Levinson film is simply titled 'Diner' (no 'The'). Take care.
1:45 PM Sep 4th
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