Carol Reed, 1949
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
Holly Martens, an American writer of pulp novels, travels to post-war Vienna searching for his friend Harry Lime, who has sent him a job offer. It seems that Lime has been killed — hit by a car — and Holly arrives just in time for the funeral. Vienna is occupied by British and Russian forces and he meets two British officers, Sergeant Paine (a fan of Holly’s western books) and Major Calloway. Calloway gently suggests that Lime was a criminal and that Holly should leave town. But he’s determined to find out what happened to Harry and clear his name, especially when he gets some hints that his old friend just might still be alive.
After The Fallen Idol, this was director Carol Reed’s second partnership with writer Graham Greene and remains their most successful work and one of the most enduring triumphs of British cinema. The black-and-white, German expressionist-influenced cinematography from Robert Krasker is incredibly famous, as are Reed’s dizzying Dutch angle shots that pepper the film. The Third Man, despite the fact that it’s a portrait of the decay and corruption in postwar Europe, hasn’t aged a day and remains relevant. Harry Lime is one of cinema’s best villains — or antiheroes, depending on your perspective — and Reed and Greene use him to examine the hazy morality that surrounds any war. Lime’s worst crimes, including stealing medicine reserved for children to sell on the black market, are compared to what presumably good people did during the war — bombing thousands of innocent civilians, all just anonymous dots on Harry’s map.
Moral hypocrisy is at the heart of this bleak film packed with moments of black humor. The Third Man seems to lambast all nationalities — British, German, Russian — though especially Americans through the ridiculous, foolish Holly, ignorant of what life during (and after) wartime is really like. Compared to Lime, Holly and most of the other characters are pale and desperate, living an approximation of life. Lime is simply bursting with life and sensuality. Though other actors were considered to play him, Orson Welles — famous for his love of excess — is perfectly cast. He overwhelms the frame, seeming larger than life, and despite his dubious morality and criminal activities, it’s immediately apparent why both Holly and Anna, Harry’s girlfriend, are drawn to him and why they remain loyal.
Harry Lime was such a compelling figure that Welles went on to take part in a radio drama, The Adventures of Harry Lime (The Lives of Harry Lime in the U.S.), with narration by Welles, who wrote several of the episodes himself. It was also followed by a television spin-off starting in 1959. I haven’t seen the show yet, but the radio show comes highly recommended and is available in its entirety online. Rumors that Welles directed some of the film seem to be false — the most he did was hold up production by arriving late and suggest some excellent, impromptu dialogue, such as the quote about how war and strife have brought out the best in different societies, while all peacetime Switzerland did was invent the cuckoo clock.
Welles is tremendous here, but his regular Mercury Theater collaborator, Joseph Cotten (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), is also excellent as Holly Martins. He’s supported by solid performances from Alida Valli (Eyes Without a Face, Suspiria) as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, British staple Trevor Howard (Green for Danger) as Major Calloway, and many other actors including Bernard Lee, Erich Ponto, and Ernst Deutsch. Vienna is also a character of its own here, with many breathtaking scenes shot on location; this was one of the first British films shot primarily on location and outside of the studio. The scene at the Vienna Ferris Wheel, where Harry and Holly finally meet up, is unforgettable, as is the classic chase scene through the city’s immense network of sewers.
The Third Man comes with the highest possible recommendation. Everything is wonderful, down to the assured directing and cinematography, solid script, and excellent performances. Last but certainly not least is the unforgettable zither score from Viennese composer Anton Karas, which is strange and unsettling, but absolutely perfect. If you can find the out of print Criterion release, that is well worth buying, otherwise you can find it on DVD and Blu-ray.