Blog Directory CineVerse: March 2024

In the mood for a lovely movie

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

CineVerse is on a roll discussing back-to-back top 20 Sight and Sound picks this month. Ranking #5 on that list is Wong Kar-wei’s In the Mood for Love, which debuted in 2000 and has been praised by cinema cognoscenti as perhaps the finest film of the 21st century so far. This romantic drama unfolds against the backdrop of 1960s Hong Kong, presenting Chow and Su (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) as nearby neighbors who forge a connection upon suspecting their spouses' infidelity with each other. Despite their burgeoning shared affection, they grapple with societal norms and their own moral compasses, opting to suppress their emotions and deny their passions.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

The film's allure lies in its exploration of themes such as yearning, desire, and solitude, as well as Kar-wai's distinctive storytelling methods—including a nonlinear narrative and poetic imagery that infuse the storyline with layers of depth and intricacy. But it’s In the Mood for Love’s captivating visuals, marked by sumptuous cinematography, intricate compositions, and rich palette of colors and light, that particularly resonate. The filmmakers adopt a stylized aesthetic, utilizing slow motion takes, swift fadeouts between scenes, noticeable distances between the lens and the subjects (who are often separated from the viewer by glass or doorways), closeups of clock faces, wafting cigarette smoke, shadowy high-contrast color cinematography, and revealing camera pans. The recurring musical motifs of a pining arrangement for strings and Spanish language numbers sung by Nat King Cole significantly underscore the romantic tension between Chow and Su.

Kar-wai refrains from showing us the faces of the cheating spouses, and he often avoids showing both Su and Chow in the same frame when they converse. Collectively, these choices suggest emotional remoteness and the inability of the couple to connect with each other or their spouses fully. At the same time, the tight framing and compositions often feel voyeuristic.

This has been widely described as a “mood piece” and a film driven more “by feeling than by thought.” We’re given a cliché, shopworn setup of two conveniently accessible people whose spouses are engaged in an illicit affair, but it deviates from our expectations for how they will behave and react to their feelings in light of this knowledge. For many viewers, this can be an exercise in frustration and disappointment; for others, its unpredictability and emphasis on mood, tone, and aesthetics create an enriching emotional experience. New Yorker critic Kyle Chayka wrote: “The film’s impossible sumptuousness is meant to be just that—impossible. Wishing that the two of them ended up together means missing the poetry of the dance.

Interestingly, the story concludes (SPOILERS AHEAD) by jumping ahead a few years. Chow returns to the old apartment and ironically doesn’t realize that Su is behind her old door. A few years later, during the Vietnam War, he embarks on a journey to Cambodia, where he explores the magnificent Angkor Wat Hindu-Buddhist temple; while being watched by a monk, Chow softly utters a secret into a crevice within a wall, sealing it with mud afterward. We can assume this secret is his spoken love and desire for Su.

This could be the most effective film ever made about the emotional and erotic power of displaced desire and repressed romance. Chow and Su’s choice to suppress their amorous feelings creates a potent yearning that feels palpable to the viewer. In a carpe diem modern world where we continually observe screen characters who quickly indulge in taboo trysts, one-night stands, and erotic assignations, how more refreshingly romantic can a delayed, unconsummated romance be?

In the Mood for Love is also a meditation on the repercussions of moral discipline, rejecting a taboo intimacy, and holding onto and letting go of a secret. “We won’t be like them,” we hear our protagonists promise each other, and they stay true to that pledge but consequently suffer by refusing to indulge in their repressed passion. They re-enact and imagine how their spouses met and engaged in their secret affair, and they rehearse future conversations with their betrothed partners: Chow and Su practice how, for instance, Su will inquire about her husband’s affair and reply to his responses.

Asynchronous love is another core theme. We see Su and Chow pass each other on the stairs, pursue each other at times when the other person isn’t there, and come together only to separate several times, implying that they are out of sync and on different paths, yet continually running into each other.

Kar-wei and collaborators muse on the fate versus free will question, too. Criterion Collection essayist Steve Erickson asks: “Have their lives already intermingled before the moves ever take place, before the movie even starts? This is a film where all our initial assumptions circle back on themselves, where the crisscrossing hallways mark the coordinates of destinies already mapped. Is it, in fact, Chow and Su who were fated all along to be lovers, and out of fear and rectitude defy and lose one of the rare chances for happiness that life offers?

Most importantly, In the Mood for Love contemplates how the passing of time and the extent to which we change as we age can shape our memories. Recall the intertitle that reads: “He remembers those vanished years as looking through a dusty window pane. The past was something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” Slant Magazine reviewers Calum Marsh and Jake Cole wrote: “Has there ever been a more apt description of the cinema’s capacity for imperfectly rendering our memory, lost to time, which we are forever desperate to reclaim?...And so what seems conspicuously ‘indistinct’ about In the Mood for Love—the pervasive sense of simplicity that governs the drama, from the convenience of its setup to the vagueness of what proceeds from it—becomes, in retrospect, a sophisticated expression of the fundamentally abstract quality of memory and reflection, not so much a paean to past love as to past love remembered in the present…Perhaps we could say that In the Mood for Love’s real subject, then, is the gulf that divides the past from the present.”

Similar works

  • Lost in Translation
  • Love (2015)
  • Three Colors trilogy
  • Carol
  • Summer Palace
  • The Spectacular Now
  • Hiroshima Mon Amour
  • The Remains of the Day
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)
  • Spring in a Small Town

Other films by Wong Kar-wai

  • Chungking Express
  • Days of Being Wild and 2046, which form a trilogy with this movie
  • The Grandmaster
  • Happy Together
  • Fallen Angels


Her name is Cleo and she dances on the Seine

Friday, March 22, 2024

Released in 1962, Agnès Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 has impressively climbed the ranks among the greatest international cinematic works in recent years. Consider that, in a 2019 BBC poll, it was voted the second-best film directed by a woman, and it placed #14 in the Sight and Sound poll of 2022, making it the third-highest-ranking movie by a female director (one of several films helmed by women that are well represented on that list). This was deemed an important French New Wave work and a pioneering film for that time. Critic Molly Haskell called itthe first fully-achieved feature by the woman who would become the premiere female director of her generation.

Corinne Marchand takes center stage as Cléo Victoire, complemented by Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothée Blanck, and Michel Legrand in supporting roles. The narrative orbits around Cléo, a budding singer grappling with the anticipation of a medical diagnosis dictating her fate. Set within the condensed timeframe of two hours, from 5 pm to 7 pm, the film tracks Cléo's meandering journey through Parisian streets, offering a poignant examination of her introspections, fears, and interpersonal connections.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

What’s particularly memorable and distinctive about this movie is that it occurs in real-time, with a 90-minute runtime that roughly depicts the minute-by-minute experiences of Cleo between 5 and 6:30 p.m. on a single summer afternoon (the summer solstice). Interestingly, the story ends prematurely, not spanning until 7 p.m., which poses questions and theories about why.

Its plot-driving motivator is to learn if Cleo has a terminal illness, but the story is more of a series of loosely linked or unconnected vignettes, as we observe the titular character drift from one encounter or experience to another, from the opening scene with a tarot card reader to a visit with her manager to a café and hat shop to a taxi ride to a sequence in her apartment with her lover and her songwriters to a reunion with her friend Dorothee to a stopover at a movie house to her walking in the park and meeting the soldier Antoine. Despite its lack of plot, the movie explores existential themes such as the fear of death, the essence of identity, and the quest for life's meaning. Cleo's journey in the film encourages viewers to reflect on their own mortality and the importance of human connections.

Perhaps the most fascinating facet of Cleo from 5 to 7 is its sense of spontaneous cinematic energy and aliveness thanks to the unforgettable handheld camera shots capturing Cleo as she walks among the masses in Paris; these unrehearsed and organic shots grace the picture with an authenticity and artless exuberance. We notice that men and women turn their heads and stare at Cleo or the camera, which reinforces how she’s a celebrity and an attractive woman who values her beauty. Film critic Adrian Martin wrote: “Cléo from 5 to 7 seemed to embody the prime obsession of all the young cinema movements of the sixties: to evoke the eternal present, flashing by in a sustained intensity.”

Varda also utilizes nontraditional compositions, jump cuts, editing loops (three similar shots of her descending the staircase), lengthy shots, an opening color sequence that contrasts with the monochrome of the rest of the film, and infusions of contemporary news and politics (the radio report of the Algiers conflict).

Cleo from 5 to 7 reminds us that our destiny is not written. Our heroine is convinced from the start of the narrative, via the tarot reading, that she has terminal cancer, but we learn from her doctor at the conclusion that it is treatable and not fatal. We also notice that the story ends at 6:30, 30 minutes short of the 7 o’clock hour mentioned in the title.

What happens in that last half hour? Maybe she develops a more intimate affection with Antoine and comes further out of her shell, more open to the possibilities of loving someone else besides yourself. Consider that Antoine prefers her real name Florence; perhaps the story ends at 6:30 because in those last 30 minutes offscreen, she has come to accept herself as the more relatable and human Florence and no longer as Cleo, the pop singer with an image to maintain. She's chosen to live life on her own time.

Takeaway #2? Our lives can change quickly for the better if we open our eyes. Cleo from 5 to 7 is about transitioning from inward to outward, from insular to broad-minded, and from fear to joy. Haskell continued: “It is an odyssey that, like so many French films, is about the double delight of watching a beautiful woman against the backdrop of the most beautiful of cities, but it is also a spiritual journey from blindness to awareness, and from self-absorption to the possibility of love…Through an arresting use of Paris as both visual centerpiece and reflection of a woman’s inner journey, Varda paints an enduring portrait of a woman’s evolution from a shallow and superstitious child-woman to a person who can feel and express shock and anguish and finally empathy.”

This film is also concerned with navigating modern life in a complicated world as a woman, and how females, fairly or unfairly, draw negative and positive attention. Cleo from 5 to 7 illustrates how men and women alike can’t help but gaze at, admire, covet, and desire a young and attractive female. Varda doesn’t objectify or unabashedly sexualize Cleo in male gaze fashion, but she deliberately casts an alluring young actress for this role; the handheld camera scenes are particularly revealing, showing numerous men turning their heads and eyeballing Cleo. From a feminist standpoint, the film provides insight into the experiences of women in society, particularly during the 1960s. Through Cleo's character and her interactions with others, messages of female empowerment, objectification, and the limitations imposed by gender norms are evident.

Similar works

  • Other films set in real-time and concerned with temporal matters, including Rope, High Noon, 12 Angry Men, The Set Up, and Russian Ark
  • French New Wave films of this period, such as Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Vivre Sa Vie Masculin Feminin, and others
  • Murnaugh’s silent Sunrise in how it recreates that film’s streetcar scene

Other films by Agnes Varda

  • Le Bonheur
  • Vagabond
  • Faces Places
  • La Pointe Courte


Why The Third Man comes in first for so many

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949, The Third Man stands as a classic of its time—and for all time—75 years later. The narrative unfolds in post-World War II Vienna, which is divided into zones controlled by the Allied powers. Holly Martins, an American pulp writer portrayed by Joseph Cotten, ventures to Vienna to reunite with his old friend Harry Lime, played unforgettably by Orson Welles. However, he soon learns of Lime's demise in a perplexing accident. Martins's quest for truth plunges him into a labyrinth of deceit, corruption, and intrigue. Joining the cast are Alida Valli as Lime's paramour, Anna Schmidt, and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, a British military police officer aiding Martins in his inquiry.

To listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted earlier this month, click here. For the latest Cineversary podcast episode, celebrating The Third Man’s 75th anniversary, click here.

How do we love The Third Man, shining as brightly as ever in its diamond anniversary year? Let us count the ways:

  1. There’s a wealth of top-notch talent involved, including screenwriter Graham Greene, co-producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, director Reed, cinematographer Robert Krasker, and the stellar actors already mentioned.
  2. It represents a fascinating multicultural story and features a melting pot of performers: It’s a film primarily made by Brits and mostly populated by European actors in smaller roles but also boasting two acclaimed American thespians.
  3. The fact that it was shot on location in war-ravaged Vienna, and not on a London set or Hollywood soundstage meant to replicate that European city, adds verisimilitude to the look and vibe of the entire picture. The striking Viennese architecture juxtaposed against crumbling edifices, cracked stairs, and glistening cobblestone streets creates an unforgettable visual template.
  4. The expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting design by Krasker, especially in nighttime outdoor scenes, is one of the finest examples of stylistic black-and-white cinematography ever created. The impossibly grandiose shadows he was able to conjure and the monochromatic canvas of high contrast produced remain a visual marvel.
  5. The screenplay by Greene remains one of the greatest narratives of any era, a masterfully constructed and brilliantly paced cinematic story that benefits immensely from wonderful dialogue, keen transitions between scenes, and sudden twists that compel the viewer to pay closer attention as the story progresses. The standout dialogue scene remains Lime’s cuckoo clock speech, delivered superbly by Welles, lines of which he contributed himself, but the entire exchange between him and Holly on the Ferris wheel, which spans a mere 300 seconds, is a masterclass in superlative screenwriting and directing. But the opening voiceover narration, spoken by Reed, also perfectly sets the scene. Recall, too, the back and forth between Holly and Calloway and how the major always maintains this verbal intelligence over Holly with great lines like “You were born to be murdered,” “Death's at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals,” and, after correcting Holly for calling him Callahan, “Calloway—I’m English not Irish.”
  6. The Third Man boasts perhaps the greatest delayed entrance of an enigmatic character in movie history. The buildup to Lime’s reveal in that dark doorway, which occurs at the 62-minute mark of a 95-minute picture, is the stuff that film legends are made of. “The Third Man presents such a nonstop visual experience that it is easy to miss what a small, seat-of-the-pants picture it essentially was,” wrote Criterion Collection essayist Lucy Sante. “Consider, for example, that Anton Karas, without whose score the movie would be substantially different, was found on location, playing in a restaurant…The Third Man is in fact a brilliant succession of dice throws, a borderline counterintuitive combination of disparate elements that somehow come together as if they had been destined to do so. It is a singular object, a fluke, a well-oiled machine, a time-capsule item, a novelty hit. There has never been another movie quite like it.” This famous delayed appearance, which excites an anticipatory audience with delight once this titular character and prime motivator of the story is shown, may have inspired similar delayed character reveals in later films. Consider Omar Sharif’s Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, Henry Fonda’s villainous Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s belated appearance in Terminator 2, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in Seven, and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
  7. The zither-ific score by the previously unknown Anton Karas became the third biggest-selling album of the 1950s, proving immensely popular worldwide.
  8. The Third Man may have been a forerunner to more modern spy thrillers, inculcating a morally disconcerting postmodern worldview in motion pictures, and serving as a delicious study in contrasts, according to John Miller with TCM. He wrote: “The Third Man works on many more levels than merely the "entertainment" that Greene termed it to be…it is an early example of a cold-war intrigue that, while not depicting a single spy, can be seen as a prototype for spy thrillers to come. It also works as a study of post-WWII morality with Harry Lime viewing his victims not as human but as far-removed dots that stop moving. It is also a character study featuring a hopeless love triangle… The Third Man rewards repeated viewings because it goes far beyond being a witty and exciting mystery thriller. It flips all expectations on their heads by featuring an attractive embodiment of villainy and ineffective heroism; an enjoyable sense of cynicism and a bleak view of romance; a calming sense of chaos and a nostalgic vision of decadence. And when you meet Harry Lime, prepare yourself for a smiling justification for everyday corporate evil in the post-war modern world.”
  9. It’s difficult to name-drop films that may have been directly influenced by The Third Man; Welles’ Mr. Arkadin and the 1997 Croatian remake Treca Zena spring to mind. But this only emphasizes how unique the picture truly is and how challenging it was in the years following its release to ride its coattails. Interestingly, The Third Man may have been inspired by more films and books than vice versa. Predecessors include M, Morocco, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Ministry of Fear, The Stranger, and Les Miserables.
  10. The British Film Institute placed The Third Man number one on its list of the greatest British films of the 20th Century. Additionally, it ranked #2 and #4, respectively, in a Time Out poll and a Total Film survey of the best British films of all time, and in 2005 BBC TV’s Newsnight Review viewers chose it as their fourth favorite movie ever. The American Film Institute named it #57 in its 1998 list of the top American films, while The Third Man earned fifth place in the AFI’s Best Mystery Films list.
This is often categorized as a film noir, yet it’s different from films established in the noir canon. Like other noir works, it utilizes a quite expressive lighting scheme evocative of film noir, featuring high-contrast lighting and exaggerated shadows in a gritty urban environment. It is this lighting style that makes possible arguably the most famous onscreen introduction of a character in motion picture history—the shot when Harry is revealed in the dark doorway. The film also puts us off-kilter with canted (tilted) camera angles utilized for many shots, and the filmmakers utilize wide-angle lens distortions and extreme facial close-ups to further purport this domain of strange, suspicious characters.

But while The Third Man’s milieu is a gritty urban environment endemic to so many classic noirs, the architecturally Old World Vienna in this story is a bombed-out, rubble-ridden cesspool of corruption, moral decay, and surveillance. Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago this is certainly not. Further evidence that this does not share the same DNA as proper noirs is the zither music soundtrack, which can sound jaunty and playful, deviating considerably from the traditional orchestral or jazzy type score prevalent in noir. The zither sounds mockingly shrill at times, as if revealing an undercurrent of pessimism and a tinge of tonal irony. This is quite idiosyncratic as musical accompaniment, with nothing else to truly compare to it.

Many scholars point to Carol Reed—director of several notable works, including Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Oliver!—as the irrefutable driving creative force behind The Third Man, and for compelling reasons. Reed chose to film on location in war-battered Vienna, a decision that lends valuable authenticity to the visuals and the entire mise en scene. Consider, too, that he was a fitting choice to helm this movie, as he was in the British Army’s wartime documentary unit. He refused to cast anyone but Welles to portray Harry Lime, which may have been the most consequential decision he made on the production. He resisted pressure from Selznick to imbue more American elements into the production and from Greene to bring Holly and Anna together at the conclusion. We can thank Reed’s vision and persistence for the cynical, unsentimental, and darker tonality that makes The Third Man a more lasting work.

As mentioned, Reed eschewed a conventional symphonic score, multi-instrumental soundtrack, or Viennese waltzes, opting instead to take a chance on Karas, an unknown musician, who impressed the director with his zither playing. This was a major risk: Reed fought with the producers to keep this solo instrumentation in the film and won.

Additionally, Reed wasn’t afraid to have characters speak in German or other non-English languages for long stretches with no subtitles, which perhaps helps us more closely identify with Holly, the American outsider surrogate for the audience. Ponder the wordless montage when Calloway presents proof of Lime’s crimes to Holly as a case study in efficient filmmaking, further proof that Reed had smart narrative and visual instincts. Reed’s choice to let the final shot breathe unbroken also speaks to his cinematic savvy. We, like Holly, are waiting eagerly to see if Anna will embrace him or not; lingering on her face and body language speaks volumes about these two characters and the situation. Proving to quite literally be a hands-on filmmaker, Reed facelessly infused himself in the narrative by filming his hands reaching through the sewer grate and voicing the opening narration.

Mind-stirring theses abound in The Third Man, a morality tale about corruption and hypocrisy. Lime personifies the morally reprehensible black market forces that erupted in postwar Europe and unscrupulously profited from other people’s suffering; and yet Lime’s speech about “would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” resonates in that period, which followed the mass killing of millions of people via bombings from Axis and Allied forces. “Lime stands out as one of the screen’s most chilling embodiments of the banality of evil, and a perfect stand-in for the film’s vision of moral breakdown in post-World War II Europe,” Slant Magazine reviewer Matt Noller posited.

One reading of The Third Man is that it espouses anti-American sentiment on the other side of the world following the war: Holly is a symbol of the United States and how our country was perceived in postwar Europe. Consider how foolish, clumsy, and naïve Holly is; he’s a personage of ridicule who is, as Village Voice critic Steve Hoberman stated, “blamed for a murder, followed in the street, hijacked by a cab driver, and repeatedly rebuffed by Anna (who can never remember his name). Such are the burdens of world leadership.” Hoberman added that the script created a political allegory: pro-British, anti-Soviet, and critical of the U.S.A.

Roger Ebert shared somewhat in this interpretation: “The Third Man" reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It's a story about grownups and children: adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime's crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels.”

Adding weight to this subtextual argument is Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote: “The Third Man is important not just because of its technique but because of its theme: Just because blundering Americans rule the world does not mean they understand it, and American cultural hegemony has transformed the global economy into the plot of a gangster movie. While the corrupt and duplicitous postwar Vienna of “The Third Man” may at first look like an ancient realm of fedoras and overcoats, men in ties and women with ringlets, in moral terms it’s the same world we inhabit today.”

This is a picture dripping with pessimism and cynicism. There is no classic happy love story ending here, only the feeling of postwar disillusionment and weariness, a fractured existence (exemplified by a city divided into four sections), hapless victims and seedy opportunists, fools like Holly who have no place in this space, and confused identities (ponder all the wrong names and mistaken identities: Holly is called Harry, Calloway is called Callahan, Holly mispronounces Dr. Winkel’s name, and Harry is the enigmatic third man).

The Third Man certainly ruminates deeply on betrayal: Lime betrays the confidence and love that Holly had placed in his friend, and Holly betrays Harry by leading the police to him and ultimately shooting him dead. And you can’t avoid the classic love triangle trope: Holly loves Anna, Anna loves Harry, Harry at one time may have loved Anna but loves himself more. However, the irony is that, in this love triangle, despite Holly doing everything the classic romantic lead should do (fall in love with the woman and try to protect her), she rejects him and holds a torch for a villainous racketeer.

Here's an interesting exercise in comparative filmmaking: Contrast The Third Man with Casablanca, released seven years earlier. Note how both feature a love triangle between a profiteer (Rick/Harry), a beautiful woman with an Eastern European heritage and accent (Ilsa/Anna), and a man who believes he’s doing the noble/right thing (Victor/Holly). Both films involve emotionally charged endings where the woman has to decide which man to choose. In each movie, the heroine passes on the expected choice, although Anna doesn’t have any love for Holly as Ilsa does for Rick. According to film reviewer Glenn Erickson: “The Third Man shows how the sentiment and ideals of Casablanca have soured in the postwar situation. In Casablanca, the risks taken by Rick, Elsa, and Renault are in harmony with the larger drama being played out between the Axis and the Allies. This ‘ideological security’ helps all three of them make painful personal decisions based on faith in a moral cause. By contrast, Martins, Anna, and the late Harry Lime drift in a moral limbo where such absolutes no longer exist. The Allies have ‘won’ but Vienna has become a political mire of injustice and conflicting ideologies…The characters of the wartime Casablanca may be confused, but they are ennobled by patriotism and able to make wise decisions. Patriotism is dead in the Viennese ruins of The Third Man. Even the benign characters are too disillusioned to function effectively. Holly waffles and plays at romance like a schoolboy. Anna drifts between bitterness and suicidal despair.”

Ultimately, The Third Man reminds us that the world is complicated—populated by an array of disparate forces, races, languages, and interests. Everybody in this world, as Renoir famously says in The Rules of the Game, has their reasons, including shadowy figures like Harry Lime, emotionally abstruse love interests such as Anna Schmidt, seasoned sleuths like Major Calloway, and the countless ethically compromised inhabitants of postwar Vienna. Trying to navigate this byzantine ethical landscape is difficult enough for the natives and the occupying forces, but it’s exponentially harder for naïve outsiders like Holly Martins who attempt to apply a myopic Americanized mindset to a convoluted state of affairs that requires greater depth perception and nuanced sensibilities, not simplistic or romanticized notions.

Holly is the unmistakable bull in this China shop, making a mess out of multiple situations and leaving an embarrassing trail of mostly regretful decisions in his wake. Calloway urges him to be sensible, but Holly says “I haven’t got a sensible name.” He’s been spurned, disillusioned, admonished, and humiliated by nearly everyone he encounters because he’s failed to grasp the new world order: that pessimism, greed, mistrust, and dehumanizing turpitude are the prevailing currencies of value, and no cowboy on a white hat straight out of a western dime novel is going to rescue or restore anyone.

The Third Man’s greatest gift, then, is that it takes an internationally spiced prestige drama, with a would-be romance recipe that uses ingredients associated with an emotionally epic payoff, and slathers it with classic noir’s bittersweet sauce of cynicism. The result is such a unique blending of different, surprising tastes: a one-of-a-kind layer cake with a delightfully decadent Lime-flavored center that you never expected.


Cineversary podcast celebrates diamond anniversary of The Third Man

Thursday, March 14, 2024

David Thomson and Charles Drazin
In Cineversary podcast episode #68, host Erik Martin celebrates the diamond anniversary of Carol Reed’s The Third Man with two outstanding guests: David Thomson, renowned film critic, cinema historian, and author of The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film; and Charles Drazin, film historian and author of In Search of The Third Man. Together, they scour the streets and sewers of Vienna on the trail of Harry Lime and the truths behind this now 75-year-old masterwork.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


Dear Zachary: Your movie is transfixing but devastating

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Nothing can quite prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster ride that director Kurt Kuenne takes you on in his 2008 documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, a film that asks a lot of its audience. Kuenne recounts the tragic story of Andrew Bagby, a young doctor murdered in 2001 by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner. The filmmaker, who shared a longstanding friendship with Bagby since childhood, undertook the project both as a heartfelt tribute and a means to document Bagby's life for his unborn son, Zachary. Dear Zachary stands out as an expressively charged work, guiding audiences through the highs and lows of Bagby's life, his untimely death, and (SPOILERS AHEAD) the subsequent legal proceedings involving his grieving parents David and Kathleen and the titular grandson they seek custody of (fascinatingly, the film is not so much about Andrew or Zachary as it is about these grandparents). Kuenne lends exceptional authenticity and depth to the narrative, and his emotional investment is palpable throughout the movie.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Dear Zachary doesn’t even pretend to be objective. This is more of a passionate polemic or video as personal essay than a documentary. Kuenne, who also narrated, shot, edited, scored, and co-produced, has an understandably biased agenda here: To pay proper homage to his late friend, explain to Andrew’s son and survivors why Andrew was so loved and special, and bring needed attention to the injustice behind Andrew’s murder and the legal system that allowed Shirley Turner to kill two innocent human beings—one a defenseless child. In this way, it transcends its role as a true crime doc by serving as a form of advocacy, particularly addressing the shortcomings of the legal system in protecting victims and preventing similar tragedies. We hear Kuenne’s narrator voice get choked up in some scenes, revealing how sincerely invested the artist is emotionally in his subject.

In defense of the documentarian here, he never originally intended this to be released commercially to the public. It was to be a private video given to Zachary and his family and friends. The director donated all profits from the movie to scholarships named after Andrew and Zachary.

What distinguishes Dear Zachary as a doc? Kuenne employs a fairly rapid style of editing, using archival home video snippets, current-day interviews and visitation footage, and photographs to tell this story at a relatively swift pace, often speaking quickly and juxtaposing images speedily. Reviewer Brian Orndorf wrote: “Kuenne’s intense study of the events is impressive, using furious editing and speed reading to pack a hornet’s nest of holdups and procedural steps into the narrative. The effect is chaotic (think “Spun” for editorial comparison), whirling the viewer around, hoping to impart the tumultuous sensations that haunted the Bagbys, leaving “Dear Zachary” undeniably compelling, but also faintly pushy, trying much too hard to unsettle the viewer with visual gimmicks when the stark reality of Turner’s twisted ways and the Bagbys’ fury is more than enough to brand itself on the heart and mind.”

Arguably, Kuenne didn’t need to lace the film with his highly emotive piano score, which can come across as manipulatively maudlin. The images and words are powerful and persuasive enough to wring every emotion possible out of the viewer.

Dear Zachary stresses perseverance through the power of love. David and Kathleen have to put aside their hatred and loathing of Shirley, the murderer of their son, to have visitations with their grandson. They stand as the ultimate role models of grace and dignity under pressure, teaching viewers that love and family bonds are bigger priorities than even justice.

This is also a painful dissertation on the profound unfairness of life. One tragedy as a subject matter is enough to warrant a fascinating documentary, but two awful human catastrophes compound the misery exponentially and utterly unfairly. Just when you think the horrible circumstances the Bagby family has to endure can’t get any worse or more cosmically cruel, it gets much worse.

On a brighter note, Kuenne’s passion project reminds us that dead loved ones live on so long as we cherish and remember them. Dear Zachary pays tribute to Andrew and the young son he never knew, but the candid interviews with relatives and friends of the Bagby family—as well as David and Kathleen’s efforts as political activists to change the flawed legal system around bail and the safety of children in custody—reveal that they will never be forgotten.

Similar works

  • Documentaries that set out following one trajectory but eventually change course and focus as filming progresses, such as The Queen of Versailles, Capturing the Friedmans, Gimme Shelter, and Vernon, Florida
  • The Thin Blue Line
  • My Brother Jordan
  • The Imposter
  • Tell Me Who I Am
  • Making a Murderer

Other docs, shorts, and films by Kurt Kuenne

  • Drive-in Movie Memories
  • Validation
  • Shuffle


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