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National treasure Martin Scorsese on The Third Man

About four months ago, I screened a beautiful 35mm print of the picture for my daughter and her friends. “Why do we keep watching this?” I suppose it’s [Joseph] Cotten and [Alida] Valli – that’s the emotional core of the picture. For instance, the scene where Holly Martins (Cotten) finally goes to her apartment. He’s a little drunk, and he tells her he loves her and he knows he doesn’t have a chance. That’s when she says, “The cat only liked Harry.” So that leads right into the great revelation of Harry Lime in the doorway with the cat – which is iconic. But it’s more than that – it’s one of the great epiphanies in movies: the cat turning the corner and nestling itself on those wing-tip shoes, and then Harry Lime being revealed when the light is turned on in the doorway and it shines in his face.

Remember Walker Percy’s great novel The Moviegoer? He refers to that moment in such a beautiful, special way. It became a moment internationally, a shared experience for a vast audience seeing that film. It’s not just a dramatic revelation – there’s something about Orson Welles’ smile at that point that shifts everything to another level, and it sustains no matter how many times you see it. Welles comes into the picture about halfway through. That’s the first time you actually see him, after you’ve spent so much time picturing him in your mind because everyone has been talking about him and thinking about him. So that might be the best revelation – or the best reveal, as they say – in all of cinema.

The Third Man is of course amazing, but I’ll leave discussing it to Scorsese. What makes Scorsese so great is two things. First of course are his films. It would be nice if he stopped making pointless projects to the late era Stones because when he sets his mind to a story, he still almost always makes a good film. But at this point can do what he wants. Second is his effusion about film, a joy that is truly contagious. Part of this is his natural manic energy but much of it is his pure love for film that has influenced his whole career, yet not turned him into Brian DePalma, ripping off scenes from his favorite movies and sticking them into his own. That might be fine once such as with the famous Battleship Potemkin into The Untouchables baby carriage, but this has turned into a schtick. Anyway, Scorsese isn’t going to be around forever and when he’s gone, there is no possible replacement.

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