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Three (1969)

In 1961, novelist and short story writer Irwin Shaw, then living in Europe, met fellow writer James Salter. A dozen years younger than Shaw, Salter looked upon the older writer as a mentor, but as Nick Paumgarten's 2013 New Yorker profile of Salter explains, "more in life than in work." A West Point graduate who had served in the Korean War as an Army Air Force pilot, Salter had written a novel based on his war experiences, The Hunter (1956) which had been made into a successful film starring Robert Mitchum. Salter had resigned from the military to devote himself to writing, but after penning a second, unsuccessful novel, he turned to screenwriting. Of 16 screenplays he wrote, only four were produced. However, one of the unproduced ones brought him to the attention of Robert Redford, for whom he wrote the script for Downhill Racer (1969), Salter's most successful film as screenwriter. In the late 1960s, Shaw (who had himself begun his career as a screenwriter in the 1930s) suggested that Salter adapt Shaw's short story "Then We Were Three" into a film.

The story, originally published in McCall's magazine and later in a collection of Shaw stories, is about three carefree young recent college graduates, two men and a woman, traveling around Europe together. In Salter's film adaptation, called simply Three (1969), Marty, the girl, played by Charlotte Rampling, is English and French. Sam Waterston, in his first starring role in a feature film, plays Taylor, a law student. The other character in the trio is Bert, played by Australian pop star Robie Porter. The three agree to avoid complications as they travel by keeping their relationships platonic. But of course, it doesn't turn out that way. Salter, who also wrote the screenplay, updated the story to the present day, but according to Roger Greenspun's New York Times review, the film "retains the sensibility of the early 1950s.... with its unspoken codes of honor and its own brand of instantaneous nostalgia.... The old-fashioned question of her life and the sustaining interest of the film is: will she or will she not go to bed with somebody."

The beautiful vistas of Rome, Florence and the south of France are not just travelogue in Three. They provide breathing room for the eloquent silences and shared confidences of the characters. It was those silences that confounded critics, and earned the film unfavorable reviews such as Greenspun's. "To construct a movie out of intervals, silences, glances and unavoidably to substitute mood for drama," he wrote. But there were some positive reviews, and over the years, the film attained minor cult status, perhaps as much for its unavailability as for the involvement of Shaw and Salter.

According to Paumgarten's article, "Shaw thought it was lousy--but Salter received other invitations to direct, which he declined." Salter eventually quit film work to concentrate on his own writing. "There had been travel, money, beguiling women and fascinating men, and entry into rooms that might otherwise have been closed to him: stories more for the dinner table than for the page. He considered all this time squandered," Paumgarten writes. Salter continued to write short stories and novels, and in 2013, at the age of 87, published his first new novel in more than 30 years, All That Is, which was highly praised.

Shaw also continued to write until a few years before his death in 1984. In the 1970s, several of his novels were adapted for television, including Rich Man, Poor Man (1970), which was made into a hugely successful 1976 miniseries. But he never again received the critical acclaim that he earned with his early novels and stories.

Director: James Salter
Producer: Bruce Becker
Screenplay: James Salter, based on the story, "Then We Were Three" by Irwin Shaw
Cinematography: Etienne Becker
Editor: Edward Nielsen
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Principal Cast: Charlotte Rampling (Marty), Sam Waterston (Taylor), Robie Porter (Bert), Pascale Roberts (Claude), Edina Ronay (Liz), Gillian Hills (Ann)
105 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri

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