Third Man on the Mountain (1959)

Director: Ken Annakin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ken Annakin is an interesting director who stirs not a lot of interest among cinephiles. The British-born filmmaker got his start during World War II as assistant director to Carol Reed on a women’s recruiting short, We Serve (1942), and got his first feature break at the Rank Organisation with the adventure comedy Holiday Camp (1947). He went from being nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and garnering a DGA nomination for his contribution to The Longest Day (1962) to winning a Razzie as worst director for The Pirate Movie (1982). He is best known as one of Walt Disney’s go-to directors for the live-action feature films wholly or partially shot in Europe.

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What I like about Annakin is that when given the chance, he knew how to make intelligent movies for the whole family, a virtually extinct type of film that gets little respect today. His best-known Disney feature is Swiss Family Robinson (1960), a ripping family yarn that reunited him with Third Man on the Mountain actors James MacArthur and Janet Munro. The latter film is based on Banner in the Sky, a novel by writer and mountaineer James Ramsey Ullman (who ghost-wrote Tenzing Norgay’s autobiography, Man of Everest), which tells a fictionalized account of the first successful summiting of the Matterhorn in 1865. Of the two Swiss-inflected films, Third Man on the Mountain is the more ambitious and thought-provoking, with more believable situations and action sequences made all the more hair-raising for actually taking place on the Matterhorn.

Man dishwasher

Rudi Matt (MacArthur) lives in the fictional Alpine town of Kurtal, where he works as a dishwasher in a hotel that caters to the tourists who come to admire and climb the mountains. His father, Josef, the best guide the Alps had ever known, died when Rudi was a toddler while trying to keep his client from freezing on the slopes of the “Citadel.” The client was rescued literally wearing the red shirt off Josef’s back, and Rudi keeps the shirt as a talisman and inspiration for his own dream of following in his father’s footsteps. His mother (Nora Swinburne) and Uncle Franz (James Donald), a guide himself who refuses to go near the Citadel, continue to steer him toward a hotel career to protect him from dying like his father. His girlfriend, Lisbeth (Munro), rejoices every time Rudi sneaks out of the hotel kitchen to test himself on the nearby peaks, believing that men should do what they are meant to do in life.

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During one of his escapes to the mountains, Rudi counts the peaks he has or will climb. He points at the Citadel and yells “And you!” Under the echoes of his own voice, he hears a cry for help. Investigating, he sees that a man has become trapped at the bottom of a crevasse. Finding that his rescue rope is too short, Rudi, like his father, strips his shirt off to tie to the end of the rope. The man he rescues is Captain Winter (Michael Rennie), a famous climber who has come to Kurtal to try to persuade Franz to be his guide up the Citadel. Winter encourages Rudi’s ambitions by buying him new equipment, and he convinces Franz to let the boy be their porter on a climb they have planned for another mountain. However, in an effort to impress Winter, Rudi strands himself on a chimney rock and must be rescued by Franz, now more set against Rudi’s ambitions than ever. When Franz confiscates Rudi’s new boots, Lisbeth and the hotel baker, Teo (Laurence Naismith), conspire to retrieve them and help Rudi learn how to be a proper guide to convince Winter and his uncle that he deserves a chance.

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Winter leaves Kurtal, briefly dashing Rudi’s hopes, but he returns with Emil Saxo (Herbert Lom), a guide from another village, to take him up the Citadel. Rudi steals away to their base camp to join them. In an effort to rescue Rudi, the Kurtal guides race to the base camp and are shamed by Saxo for their cowardice. Franz not only agrees to join the climb, but to allow Rudi to come as well, and the breathtaking assault on the Citadel moves into high gear.

Mountain

Walt Disney and his wife were smitten with and frequent visitors to Switzerland, and he personally insisted that Third Man on the Mountain be filmed there. In an odd irony to a story in which climbers from rival Swiss towns vie for the honor of scaling the Citadel, the director of the mountain unit was French mountaineer Gaston Rébuffat, one of the rare non-Swiss climbers to become an official Alps climbing guide. While Annakin used some matte paintings and a bit of movie magic to simulate the steep drops of the cliffsides, the climbing sequences are real; all the actors learned climbing techniques so that the use of doubles in closer shots could be kept to a minimum. The film shows how the sport was done in 1865—no pitons or carabiners to lock them to the rock faces, no pulleys, no waterproof down parkas, no helmets, and no oxygen. They wear wool clothes, plain leather boots with spikes, and stocking caps, and their main tool is their body—hands and feet for finding hand and toe holds, and shoulders and torso to act as a pulley for belaying their fellow climbers. They have no protection from a rock slide but to cower under whatever they can find, and they have to find something secure to throw their rope around if they can’t find any usable holds or paths. It’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying to watch the climbers moving along the mountain on the smallest of ledges with nothing between them and a fatal fall but the strength of their fingers and toes. I literally had to look away at certain points in the film.

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However, the film is generously paced with scenes of village life, a little comic relief in the form of Teo and mountains of unwashed dishes, and the sense of pride the Swiss take in their unique sport. A telescope sits in the square through which the villagers eagerly take turns watching the progress on the mountain—the film gets its name from a declaration that there’s “a third man on the mountain” when only two were anticipated. The cinematography by the great Harry Waxman (Brighton Rock [1947], The Wicker Man [1973]) shows off Switzerland to good effect, particularly in the mystic shots of the Matterhorn looking like the killer it is (and inspiration for the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland), and his colorful mise-en-scène for a village dance offers an attractive, less sentimental view of small towns than is often the norm for family films.

Natalie JareskoMan Helen Hayes

James MacArthur is terrific as Rudi. He conveys Rudi’s irresistible urge to climb without theatrics—he just moves as though propelled by an unseen hand. MacArthur enjoyed climbing, and so some of this performance might have included his own awakening to the beauty and challenges of the sport, but he modulates his performance with a steely resolve when needed. Janet Munro is an incredibly likeable actress whose approach to playing Lisbeth is more mature than I’ve seen her attempt before. Her final clinch with Rudi includes a very grown-up kiss, and she speaks about marrying him without a hint of girlishness—she’s a woman who can bear up should she lose her man to the mountain because she knows he’s not going to be fully himself without it. The competitiveness of the sport and the honor of being lead guide or first to summit are voiced strongly by a surprisingly effective Herbert Lom, who is almost unrecognizable as Emil. Michael Rennie seems just a little too kind, forgiving, and genteel for this sport, but he doesn’t do any real damage to the film. And just for good measure, MacArthur’s mother, Helen Hayes, makes an uncredited cameo appearance in the film as a hotel guest.

Red shirt

Ullman’s fictionalized names draw parallels to the real events that inspired his novel. The book and screenplay suggest that the young conquerer of the Citadel will have his name forever linked with the mountain, giving the erroneous impression that Matt lent his name to the Matterhorn. In addition, Captain Winter’s name and nationality must have derived from the organizer of the real climb, Edward Whymper. Screenwriter Eleanore Griffin, a solid talent whose work on Imitation of Life (1959) has been all but forgotten by Douglas Sirk auteurists, put together a well-written script that encourages children and young adults to follow their hearts and take responsibility for themselves and others, and shows adults how important it is to care for their children without squashing their spirits.

  • Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 5:17 pm

    “I literally had to look away at certain points in the film.” The same here. I hadn’t seen the film in years so it was practically like “new” when it ran on TCM recently. I was totally enthralled.

    You mentioned Helen Hayes cameo. Did you know that the younger woman with her was Joyce Bulifant (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), who was married to MacArthur at the time?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 6:27 pm

    Hi Patricia – No I didn’t know that! So interesting. I had never seen this before, so it was a huge treat for me. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Lee Price spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 7:36 pm

    Those aren’t just any matte paintings. That’s the work of Peter Ellenshaw, with a vertiginous cliff perspective that appropriately rips off his earlier work on Black Narcissus (definitely a case of stealing from the best!). After Ellenshaw’s magnificent early work with Korda and the Archers, he moved to America and steady work at Disney. I love his matte paintings for Disney’s Mary Poppins where he perfectly sets the tone with his magical depictions of London.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 7:43 pm

    Lee – Excellent comment. Yes, I did see a resemblance with Black Narcissus and was suitably impressed.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 9:49 pm

    I got to watch this back-to-back once on TV with “The Mountain”, a Spencer Tracy vehicle, and two great climbing films in a row was a great way to spend a hot desert afternoon. “Third Man on the Mountain” was a must watch for me whenever it was on, I really like James MacArthur in this, some of his best work in films. He was a go-to actor for a lot of mountain films, I think, quite athletic enough to fit the part. His work in “Kidnapped” was sort of like this one, but he was overshadowed by the supporting players, where here he acts easily well enough to carry the starring role. janet Munro was a very good actress, a pity she died so young. but she did some good work on more adult roles by then. She carr

  • Vanwall spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 9:51 pm

    That was strange. I was going to say she carried her own weight beside Patrick McGoohan’s ever-brooding presence in “Life for Ruth”.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    21st/01/2015 to 10:11 pm

    And Herbert Lom was excellent, I think he did well in an action role, something he didn’t get enough of, I’m thinking. He wwas like the late, lamented Stefan Gierasch, who was plugged into certain square holes, but when he was let loose, like in “Jeremiah Johnson”, he’s like another person completely. Lom’s voice couldn’t change but he was rather chameleonic.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/01/2015 to 6:33 am

    Van – Really great comments, and I agree with everything you say, particularly about Lom. I saw his name in the opening credits, but darned if I couldn’t find him in the movie. He was more versatile than his roles, as you say.

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    27th/01/2015 to 8:31 pm

    I presume he’s nicknamed “Skywalker.”

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