From Third Man to third rate

July 19, 1996

Continuing our serieson favourite films, Norman Stone contrasts the triumphs of British cinema of the 1950s, epitomised by Carol Reed's The Third Man, with the vacuous efforts of today

Music communicates faith, pictures communicate fervour", said Saint Bonadventure, and it is difficult to communicate fervour in prose. Film criticism is a good instance: what proves what? Film, like opera, requires a mastery of different techniques; attention to detail is utterly essential, and can break a film, but the detail needs to be part of an overall vision, and it is as difficult to be a Great Director as it is to be a Great Commander. In this country, we used to have them.

For my own best film, I can therefore only advance The Third Man, a British film of the early 1950s. Its director was Carol Reed, illegitimate son of Max Beerbohm, and the script was by Graham Greene (later turned into a short story - probably the right way round for such exercises). The film was set in ruined Vienna, just after the war, when the city was occupied by the four Allied powers, and was prey to black-marketeering - in this case, a racket that killed or maimed sick children through watered-down penicillin. The final scene, as the anti-heroine walks down the central avenue of the great cemetery, leaving the funeral of the villain (Orson Welles), going to her own doom at the hands of the Russians, and contemptuously ignoring the outstretched hand of the well-meaning and naive American hero, is one that sticks in the brain. But there are many other such scenes; and the faces of the Viennese of that time - like most people east of the Elbe after 1917, they had potato-faces, full of lines and character - emerge especially well from the black-and-white shooting. There is no blandness at all, no derivativeness, no provinciality. It is the picture of a culture in collapse, as convincing as, say, Strauss's Metamorphosen, which the old composer wrote as he surveyed the ruins of bombed Munich and the wreckage of a once-great culture. The Yanks had arrived, and they Americanised everything - a process that has be-jeaned and be-pop-musicked its way across the whole of Eurasia.

Islands resisted the process, and British film of the 1940s and 1950s did so with enormous success - witness Kind Hearts and Coronets, or many of the others of that era. These films had an innocence, but they were not gullible or naive. Since about 1960, I have not bothered with much in the way of British film, or, since about 1970, continental ones.

Why, is a very interesting question. In part, it has to do with provincialisation. Turn on the BBC six o'clock news to see this - frolics of the minor royals; a fuss about some health matter ("illness is common", pronounced a grand Polish lady). They gave the six o'clock news to the Hungarians as a goodwill gesture, for their English lessons, back in 1990. Hungarians - more potato-faces - could not believe the nonsense, put it out late at night, and then stopped broadcasting it altogether. The BBC World Service, which is most definitely not provincial, is now, apparently, to be run down. Another little sign: Oxford has just advertised for a director of the Ashmolean. The salary, a net Pounds 2,500 per month, is less than my window-cleaner's. A country which neglects the basics in this way is just not going to be any good at making films: too stuck-up to be energetically naif, too provincial to have any sense of aesthetics.

The most depressing article that I ever had to write was on British films of the 1980s, for The Sunday Times eight years ago. Hanif Kureishi had scripted a watchable enough film, My Beautiful Laundrette, which was at least about something - a homosexual Romeo and Juliet, across racial boundaries - and he had written a sequel, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which was unspeakable. It, and the rest of the collection that I had to review, were a horrible mixture of 1960s American self-indulgence and beta-minus efforts at 1930s Comintern grittiness. Apparently the film schools churned out Marxist stuff and got their little charges to produce agitprop. However, the English make very poor Marxists - they are just not good at hating - and they have a strange love-affair with the inept amateur (eg George Formby). One of them was a pretentious weepy about the end of Wykehamist England by the grotesque Derek Jarman. The storylines, scripts and plots were dismal. Some committee or other, something to do with Channel Four, seems to have sponsored the things, dishing out public money with instructions to be "controversial". My article, shades of Saint Bonadventure, only summarised the plots: everyone, Jarman in the lead, then struck attitudes; the films died a death; so did the whole absurd genre.

Of course the British film people would contest this, and trot out various recent half-successes in their defence. But the answer to these, as to advocates of rock music, is simply to ask: which of the 1970s and 1980s films really bears showing again? Citizen Kanes and Gone With the Winds go on and on; so even, and not for reasons of archaeology alone, do the Fritz Langs and Truffauts. No: something happened to British film in the later 1950s.

To say quite what, it is worth looking beyond England, at comparable cases. Northern, Protestant Europe, as a whole, was remarkably productive around 1900 (in fact the same is true of the whole Protestant world, including the Calvinist parts of Hungarian Transylvania - it was there, in Kolozsvar, that the Korda brothers first used "movies" the Hungarian word, mozi, being the original of that, and Hungarians being well in the lead in early Hollywood). Danes, Dutch, Scots: hammering away, at everything from television to the nuclear bomb, made the running. Three generations later, and these creative potato-faces give way to rights-minded hedonism, at which the United States is just, simply, more professional. Il faut souffrir pour etre belle, says the old song, and that is as true of film as of most everything else.

Norman Stone is professor of modern history, University of Oxford.

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