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Viewer Guide: The Third Man and The Music Never Stopped

May 12, 2021 | 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.


The Music Never Stopped (2011)

This week’s indie is The Music Never Stopped, a 2011 music drama directed by Jim Kohlberg.

Loosely based on Oliver Sack’s essay “The Last Hippie” and borrowing its title from a Grateful Dead song, The Music Never Stopped is set in 1986, and stars J.K. Simmons as Henry Sawyer, an engineer living a quiet but depressed life in suburban New York with his wife Helen, played by Cara Seymour.  Henry dreads the prospect of his impending retirement because it’s still tough for him to live with a painful emptiness at the center of his life: the disappearance of his estranged son Gabriel, an aspiring rock & roll musician played by Lou Taylor Pucci, who stormed out of the house after a bitter argument with his father at the peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement in 1968.  With no knowledge of Gabriel’s whereabouts for 18 years, Henry eases his regrets by taking refuge in his favorite music, an artistic interest he had instilled in Gabriel as a boy before the Sixties generational conflict drove a wedge between father and son.  But when Gabriel resurfaces at a hospital, Henry and Helen’s relief is short-lived upon learning that Gabriel is suffering from a massive brain tumor.  While the tumor is benign and treatable, Gabriel’s brain damage has transformed him into a psychological Rip Van Winkle, with his life’s memories ending in 1968.  But when Gabriel unexpectedly responds to music fragments during sessions with his therapist played by Julia Ormond, Henry begins to realize there may still be a path back to repair their relationship through the mutual passion they both still share.

Marking the directorial debut of producer Jim Kohlberg, The Music Never Stopped had languished in development hell for thirteen years before getting its production greenlit after critical music rights for songs by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, so central to the film’s narrative, were finally granted.  Receiving the blessing from these two music industry giants was both a boon to the low-budget indie’s bottom line as well as a seal of approval, with rights for The Beatles’ songs and other rock & roll heavy hitters soon following.  Initially called “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Kohlberg changed the title to the Dead’s song “The Music Never Stopped” as being more appropriate to the story, as well as to prevent audiences from assuming the movie was a Dylan biopic.  The film also provided a richly deserved career break for veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, who would triumphantly garner a Best Supporting Actor Oscar three years later for his blistering performance in Whiplash.

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