I remember the exact moment that I fell in love with Joseph Cotten. It was Fourth of July, 2008 and Turner Classic Movies had chosen to celebrate our Nation’s birthday by scheduling a Hitchcock marathon, which I thought was a terrific idea. I was happy that I woke up in time to watch Shadow of a Doubt that morning; I had never seen it but my mom had recently watched it for the first time and raved about it, so I was anxious to check it out for myself. Cotten’s Uncle Charlie hooked me the minute he appeared on screen, lying, almost corpse-like, on a bed in a seedy motel, smoking a cigar. And when he opened his mouth to speak, with that sonorous, sinister but incredibly seductive voice of his, it was like being struck by lightning. I was gobsmacked. Who on earth was this glorious creature? And why hadn’t I noticed him before? I didn't even know if I’d seen him in anything else because surely, if I had, I'd have remembered him. I sat, spellbound, for the length of the movie, which I thought was fabulous in every way, and then I set about researching Mr. Joseph Cotten. I quickly realized that I had actually seen a handful of his movies and was surprised that he had failed to make more of an impact on me, especially considering that two of the movies I’d seen, Citizen Kane and The Third Man, were thought to be two of his very best roles.
Though I’d watched Kane a couple of times and found it entirely underwhelming (I really like it now but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it), The Third Man was a movie I’d remembered enjoying, even if I could remember little else about it. I caught it at Downtown West on its fiftieth anniversary run in ’99, mostly because I knew it was the movie Juliet and Pauline went to see together in Heavenly Creatures. I remembered Orson Welles, of course, especially the bit where the kitten sidles up to him in the alley and starts batting at his shoelaces, but Cotten had failed to leave a lasting impression, despite the fact that he’s in practically every frame of the film.
Joseph Cheshire Cotten was dapper and elegant. He was tall (6’2”) and he carried himself gracefully. He even had his suits specially tailored without pockets so that he would appear more streamlined. He had a handsome face and wavy hair. He was a little bit older than your average matinee idol when he began his film career (after a stint on Broadway with Kate Hepburn and Van Heflin in The Philadelphia Story) but, otherwise, he had all the makings of a dreamboat leading man.
But here’s the thing about Cotten, and it’s one of the things I love most about him: not only could he disappear into a character he was playing, he could fade into the fabric of the film itself, so that other players, like his buddy Welles, could shine. A role like Uncle Charlie is brash and showy, which is why it got my attention, but a role like Jed Leland or Holly Martins is something much subtler and, I would think, much more difficult to pull off with success. Cotten almost never seemed to be trying to draw attention to himself but I think that makes him all the more magnetic. It also makes him well-suited to playing underdogs, sad sacks and dupes, which he did on a fairly regular basis and never with more success than in Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s sublime The Third Man.
Poor Holly Martins, pulp western author, drunkard, hopeless romantic, finds himself in post-war Vienna at the request of his longtime pal Harry Lime, who’s offered him a job with his medical charity. But by the time Martins arrives Lime is dead and the police are accusing the dearly departed of all sorts of nasty illegal activities. Martins ought to have the good sense to turn tail and head home to America but, maybe because he’s confused himself with a hero from one of his books, maybe because he likes the look of Lime’s girl, the lovely, melancholy Anna, he decides to stick around, butt heads with Trevor Howard's (quite wonderful) Major Calloway and restore his pal’s good name.
The movie, usually classified as film noir, works so well, in part, because it defies categorization. It’s tragic, romantic and darkly comedic. It’s mysterious and suspenseful. It’s a little like Casablanca, only most of the characters act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the greater good. Even honest, sensible Holly Martins is in it for himself, if only to feel a sense of pride for having done the right thing and helped the damsel in distress out in the process. Martins is a lot like another of Greene’s protagonists, The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle, who tries to impose his simple black and white worldview onto a situation with no easy solutions; these lines, paraphrased from The Quiet American, spoken in reference to Pyle, could even be applied to Martins himself: “I should have known that saving the girl and saving the country would be the same thing to a man like Pyle.” In both stories, the naivete (coupled with a skewed sense of moral rightness) of these quiet Americans, ends up having disastrous consequences.
Cotten certainly plays Martins as a fool but he’s a likable fool and his antics are entertaining and oddly endearing. Both Carey Grant and Jimmy Stewart were considered for the role of Martins and either man could have played the part convincingly but not as well (and I realize I’m terribly biased) as Cotten; Grant would have to have gotten the girl, in the end, and for the movie to work that just cannot happen (this wasn’t a problem with an actor like Cotten in the role, because he almost never got the girl) and Jimmy Stewart’s usual awe-shucks persona might have come across as over the top in the understated environment that Reed constructs. I think Cotten could better project the sense of defeatism that was necessary for the role. He can stumble about, earnestly, for the better part of the picture, trying to right the wrongs and save the girl, but you sense that, deep down, he knows he’s always going to come out on the losing end.
If The Third Man dealt in typical heroes and villains, Lime, played by Welles, would be the black hat to Martins white. He’s up to no good, for sure, but Welles makes him so gregarious and appealing (and, like Uncle Charlie, more than a little sinister-seductive) that it’s hard not to root for him a little bit despite the atrocity of his crimes. Because he’s a big personality it’s right that he has so little screen time; he doesn’t need any more than he gets to remain memorable to the viewer.
Alida Valli’s performance as Anna impresses me more every time I watch the movie. She’s perfect as a sad woman who is entirely resigned to the circumstances of her existence. Her love for Harry is genuine but tempered by practicality. She knows there’s no future for the two of them, she doesn’t even want one, but, no matter how dark his secrets may be, she goes on caring for him all the same.
I am so grateful that, eleven years later, I was able to see this marvelous movie on the big screen again, when I could better appreciate its brilliance (and seeing it in the beautiful AFI Silver, truly a treasure for any cinephile, only made the experience more special).