Viewer Guide: The Third Man and Ladies in Black

June 12, 2020 | Richard Peña


The Third Man (1949)

Tonight’s classic is The Third Man, the great 1949 film noir mystery-thriller directed by Carol Reed.

Featuring a screenplay by British novelist Graham Greene and a famous zither score by Anton Karas, The Third Man takes us to Vienna in the aftermath of World War II.  With the European waltz capital struggling to find its footing in the deepening shadows of the Cold War, the city is divided into four zones—occupied by the Americans, the British, the Russians and the French—allowing old suspicions, rivalries, and a robust black market to flourish in equal measure.  Into this uncertain world where nothing is quite what it seems steps Holly Martins, a down on his luck American writer of pulp westerns played by Joseph Cotton.  In need of money, Martins has been promised a vague job of some kind in the rubble-strewn city by his old friend Harry Lime.  Holly, however, has barely arrived at Harry’s apartment when he discovers that his childhood chum has recently been killed in a hit and run car accident.

Reaching the cemetery just in time for the end of Harry’s funeral, a stunned Holly finds himself quite alone in precarious circumstances, but soon strikes up an edgy acquaintance with Major Calloway, an investigator with the Royal Military Police played by Trevor Howard.  In addition, Holly finds himself becoming intrigued with Harry’s old girlfriend, an alluring actress named Anna Schmidt played by Alida Valli.  Soon convinced that Harry’s death wasn’t just an accident, Holly initiates his own private investigation, and proceeds to make a series of unsettling discoveries about his dear old friend, who grows more mysterious with each passing day. But as played by Orson Welles in one of his most memorable movie roles, Harry is not the sort of character who gives up his secrets easily.


Ladies in Black (2018)

This week’s indie is Ladies in Black, a nostalgic 2018 comedy-drama directed by Bruce Beresford.

Adapted from the novel by Madeleine St. John, Ladies in Black is set in 1959 at the fictitious “Goode’s Department Store,” a high-end retailer catering to the upscale post-war clientele of Sydney, Australia. The “ladies in black” of the title are the all-female sales clerks, unobtrusively dressed in black to avoid upstaging the merchandise while retaining an understated air of elegance. Entering into this refined world with its unspoken code of conduct is Leslie Miles, a naïve 16 year-old played by Angourie Rice who’s been hired to help out during the Christmas rush. A bookish only child trying to negotiate her father’s approval to apply for a scholarship to the University of Sydney, Leslie is pressed into service to assist Fay and Patty, two established sales women played by Rachael Taylor and Alison McGirr, both of whom are coping with their own after-hours personal issues. For Fay, despite her classic Grace Kelly beauty, her romantic life seems to have mysteriously stalled; and as for Patty, her husband’s frequent absences have begun to take a toll on her marriage. But the reigning Queen Bee of ladies evening wear is the commanding Magda, a Hungarian refugee played by Julia Ormond, who wears her European flair like the latest Dior gown. Ignoring the grumbled objections about Magda’s “immigrant” status, Leslie blossoms under her tutelage, creating a new identity for herself as she begins to emerge from her ugly duckling phase of adolescence.

Also featured in supporting roles are Vincent Perez as Magda’s husband, and Ryan Corr as another Hungarian expat looking to start a new life “down under.”

The director of such high profile critical and box office successes as Breaker MorantTender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, Australian director Bruce Beresford had long sought to adapt Madeleine St. John’s 1993 novel for the movies, having been a friend of St. John’s at the University of Sydney. Already adapted into a successful Australian stage musical in 2015, the novel’s fictitious “Goode’s Department Store” was modeled after such actual Sydney retailers as the Mark Foys and David Jones department stores. Infused at times with perhaps a too-good-to-be-true nostalgic glow, Ladies in Black nonetheless registers some quiet observations on the growing consciousness among the women of their social status along with an awareness of immigrant rights, two issues that remain very much at the forefront of contemporary life. And any Marvel Comics fans watching may recognize young Australian star Angourie Rice from her recurring role in the latest Spider Man reboot, starring Tom Holland.

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