Sunday, December 8, 2019
The Third Man (1949)
Despite the international cast The Third Man was a British production. The location shooting (of which there’s a great deal by the standards of 1949) was done in Vienna. Although there was not only a second unit but a third as well Reed in fact directed almost everything himself.
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a popular American writer of westerns, arrives in Vienna shortly after the end of the Second World War. The city is occupied by the armies of the British, the Americans, the French and the Russians. Holly is broke but his old friend Harry Lime has tempted him to Vienna with the promise of work. Unfortunately by the time Holly arrives Harry Lime is dead, run over by a truck.
Holly tracks down Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Harry’s doctor and several of the witnesses, none of whom are very coöperative. He begins to suspect that Harry was actually murdered. Holly is right about the accident not being what it seemed to be but his theory as to what happened is quite wrong. Holly will find out the truth, but do we always want to know the truth? Does it actually help us?
The Third Man has three huge claims to cinematic greatness. Firstly there’s the story. The screenplay was written by Graham Greene from one of his own stories. With Greene as the writer you know you’re going to get a tale that is literate and intelligent with a dash of black humour, deliciously twisted, and highly entertaining. There are plenty of typical Graham Greene obsessions in this tale. Betrayal of course. Not just betrayal of love, but betrayal of illusions. The idea that knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily make a person better off.
Its third claim to greatness is its stylistic brilliance. It’s so stylish that there have been rumours that Welles took a hand in the directing. No-one familiar with Carol Reed’s career as a director would believe this for a moment. Style was Carol Reed’s middle name. And if you compare it to other notable Reed films such as Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana you will see exactly the same visual flourishes that you see in The Third Man. Carol Reed didn’t need anyone’s help to direct a masterpiece. And in The Third Man he’s on fire. Reed used visual tricks when they were needed. This was a movie that lent itself to a bravura approach. This is the world of Harry Lime and nothing is straightforward.
Apart from the absurd claim that Welles had a hand in the directing there’s the equally nonsensical claim that he contributed in a major way to the script. In fact he contributed one line. These silly claims seem to have originated with Welles. Welles’ career as a director ended up amounting to virtually nothing and his one really memorable acting performance, in The Third Man, was a supporting rôle in someone else’s movie. This must have rankled with him and may have led him to make these ridiculous wildly exaggerated claims.
Mention must also be made of the famous zither soundtrack. l disliked it the first time I saw the movie but now I realise Reed was quite right in his judgment. It adds to the unique flavour of war-torn Vienna.
The StudioCanal Blu-Ray offers an excellent transfer and a host of extras. There have been many DVD releases of the film, some good and some terrible. This is one instance where, if you’re a fan of the movie, it probably is worthwhile upgrading to the Blu-Ray.
The Third Man may not be a perfect film but it’s about as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get. There’s not a single false note, not a single weakness. I said at the beginning that it would make my list of the ten greatest movies of all time and I’m now more convinced than ever of this. A truly great movie. Very very highly recommended.
You can find my review of Greene's novella The Third Man here.