Friday, February 25, 2005


"The dead are happier dead--they don't miss much here, poor devils"

Anton Karas, The Third Man Theme.
Doris Day, My Dream is Yours.

Something extraordinary happened in the five years after the Second World War--the movies (which by the end of the war had become something akin to an international church of dreamers) began to die.

In 1946, 100 million people per week on average saw a film in the U.S., out of a population of 140 million, and countless more went worldwide. Four years later, attendance had plummeted--down to 60 million people per week. And the numbers would keep on dropping, bottoming out in the 1960s and early '70s.

You could blame the decline of the cities (most theaters were located in traditional downtowns, which were becoming a little shabby) and the rise of the suburbs; that a great many people now had small children to tend; the government-ordered separation of film studios and theater chains in 1948, which destroyed the classic Hollywood system; and of course, the great usurper television. But there also seems to be something intangible--that perhaps people fell out of love with movies during these years.

That might be too broad a statement. After all, movies are one of the few mass entertainments people still feel they have a stake in (newspaper movie critics often get more vitriolic mail than the political reporters do), and films were far from moribund in 1949--after all, still in the future lay Godard and Rear Window, Kurosawa, the Godfather movies and Kieslowski and Chinatown. But looking back on the '40s, what strikes me is the way movies were interwoven into the very fabric of life, in a way they never quite would be again. People would think nothing of leaving the house, walking into a movie halfway through and staying on through the start of the next picture, stepping in at the movies the way one would a local pub. (This type of viewing could prove frustrating to filmmakers: I have a poster for Vertigo that has, running along its bottom border, in large block letters: A HITCHCOCK THRILLER--YOU SHOULD SEE IT FROM THE BEGINNING.)

And there was even something of a religious element, a sort of modern paganism, to filmgoing, especially in the immediate after-war years. In his book The Whole Equation the critic David Thomson describes the palatial moviehouses of his childhood in postwar England:

"[In the morning] the cinemas were closed and resting, like creatures that were essentially nocturnal or too glamorous for the mundane activities of the day...there were thick carpets in the lobbies. The air was perfumed, literally. My mother told me that this was done to kill the germs...the walls had gold foil on them, or damask velvet. There were designs of warriors and maidens, swans and castles, emperors and witches...they were like the threshold to a story."

Compare this to the average boxy multiplex in which you find yourself enduring films today. Just a few moviehouse temples are left: In New York, only the Ziegfeld remains; in Boston, the Coolidge Corner.

They Live By Night

And throughout, the films playing in the theaters were often astonishing. For me, the run of great films in the '45-'50 period has never been equalled. It was the period of John Ford's calvalry trilogy, the great noir thrillers, the last gasp of the screwball comedies, Howard Hawks' Red River, and the burst of brilliant UK movies, from the horror anthology Dead of Night to the Archers' films to Alec Guinness' black comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets. Even mainstream A-list films seemed haunted and desperate--The Best Years of Our Lives, Call Northside 777, Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, It's a Wonderful Life, while brutal, fantastic little movies abounded--Detour, Gun Crazy, Caught, The Killers, Nicholas Ray's debut They Live By Night (stills pictured above).

The Third Man, which premiered in the UK in September 1949 and in the U.S. six months later, could stand for the whole period. It's a film swamped by history, that of its players (Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, both of their careers on the wane, seem to have aged enormously from Citizen Kane, made just eight years earlier) and of its setting--blasted, grasping postwar Vienna. The hero, Cotten's Holly Martins, is a hack and a witless dupe, a degraded Henry James character wandering through a destroyed world, while Welles' charming nihilist Harry Lime, officially lying in the grave and happily profiting from the desperation of others, runs the show. At the top of the post is Anton Karas' zither theme song, later covered by both The Band and Liberace, surely the only time that ever happened).

As a counterweight, consider another '49 film, My Dream is Yours, which is set not in ghost-ridden Vienna but in deathless Hollywood, and features the 25-year old Doris Day in the midst of her march to become the sunny ambassador of American optimism. It's a cloying, stupid picture, designed to use whatever spare parts Warner Brothers had lying around (even Bugs Bunny and Tweety are drummed into service), but it shows what the mainstream 1950s would have in store. Day's performance of the title song, however, is sweet, wistful and moody, far too tasteful for the film it adorns.

You can find the "Third Man Theme" here, and the film itself is on a great Criterion DVD; Day's "My Dream" is found here.

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