Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949, is generally recognised as not just one of the greats of film noir but as one of the greatest movies of all time. I’ve seen it a couple of times and it would make my top ten list. Now I’m about to revisit it. Will I be as impressed this time as I was last time? We will see.

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.

There were several witnesses to the accident but they all tell slightly different stories. Harry was killed instantly. He lived for just a short time. He lived long enough to pass on an important message. Holly has a bit of an over-active imagination and this combined with the odd discrepancies in accounts of the incident arouses his suspicion. British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) advises him to leave Vienna but Holly is now determined to find out what really happened. Two men carried Harry’s body to the side of the road after the accident, but some accounts mention a mysterious third man. Holly is particularly keen to find this third man.

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?

When Greene was hired to write the screenplay he first wrote the story out as a novella which was later published (and the novella differs from the movie in several key points). This was one of the three collaborations between Greene and Carol Reed (the others being The Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana) and those three movies are close to being Reed’s best work. Greene was quite lucky when it came to move adaptations of his stories. Apart from the lamentable 1958 version of The Quiet American most have been pretty good and several have been superb (not just the three films with Reed but also Brighton Rock and This Gun For Hire). Greene was a naturally cinematic writer, possibly the first great novelist to have a natural affinity for movies.

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 second claim to greatness is the cast. There’s Orson Welles, at the peak of his powers and in the rôle of his career. But he’s not directing so his performance is more disciplined that usual. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, a good actor who is well cast and gives his career-best performance. And then there’s Trevor Howard, again perfectly cast and in top form. Alida Valli is excellent as Harry’s girlfriend. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Bernard Lee especially good as Calloway’s sergeant. And there’s an aded bonus - the always delightful Wilfred Hyde-White.

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.

Every single shot in this movie is exquisitely composed and photographed. There’s not a single moment that hasn’t had care and attention lavished on it. Cinematographer Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his work on this film. If it’s film noir visual style you’re after then this movie has it in abundance. In fact it’s hard to think of any movie that is more visually film noir than this one.

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.

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