Third Man, The (United Kingdom, 1949)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Many critics consider The Third Man to be the best British post-World War II film noir. There are others (myself included) who believe it to be one of the best-ever examples of film noir to come out of all of Europe. The Third Man has all the right ingredients: an engaging, twisty storyline (written by Graham Greene); one of the most diabolical and charismatic villains ever to grace the screen; crisp, innovative directing (by the underrated Carol Reed); a score (by Anton Karas) that it as unforgettable as it is unconventional; and cinematography (by Robert Krasker) that uses the black-and-white medium to its fullest. Not only is The Third Man a darling of the critics, but it has been embraced with glee by the general populace for more than five decades.

The unquestionable effectiveness of The Third Man is derived primarily from the manner in which the individual components are blended together. The movie does not rely too heavily on any single production aspect. It is not defined by its evocative photography, or by Karas' use of a zither, by Orson Welles' scene-stealing presence, or by the on-location use of the post-war, bombed-out streets of Vienna. Instead, these things work to compliment each other. The auteur in this case is Carol Reed, a filmmaker who is rarely accorded the credit he deserves. The Third Man is Reed's greatest triumph, but it is not his only one. He also helmed productions such as The Fallen Idol and Oliver! (He won his only Oscar for the latter.)

Through the years, many pundits have wondered whether Orson Welles had an uncredited hand in directing The Third Man. According to numerous sources, Welles and Reed included among them, this was not the case, and it would do Reed an injustice to suggest anything to the contrary. However, it is probably true that Welles indirectly influenced Reed. After all, Citizen Kane was seven years old when The Third Man went into production, and it is likely that many of the techniques and approaches pioneered by Welles in his masterpiece found their way into The Third Man, among many other contemporary motion pictures.

The basic story is pretty straightforward noir thriller-like material. There's a no-nonsense, hard-drinking hero, a femme fatale, and a villain who (literally) stays in the shadows. Yet, despite the standard plotline, the writing of Graham Greene elevates things to a higher level. When he penned The Third Man, Greene was aware of the conventions of film noir, and he adopted them not as cliches mandated by a genre, but as pieces of a larger puzzle. Thus, the subtext in The Third Man is deeper and richer than it is in most similar films. The difference is in the details, not in the wider brushstrokes.

Joseph Cotten, the selection of producer David O. Selznick (Reed wanted James Stewart), is Holly Martins, a relatively naïve American novelist who arrives in post-war Vienna to take a job offered to him by his longtime friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When Holly arrives, however, he learns that Harry has recently died in a tragic traffic accident. At the funeral, he meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British member of the local military police, who tells Holly that he should turn around immediately and go home. But Holly is bitten by the curiosity bug and smitten by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a mysterious mourner at Harry's funeral. He thinks there's more to the story of Harry's death than is initially obvious, and he begins his own investigation. He soon learns that there are differing accounts of what happened that day, and that one of the witnesses - the "third man" to remove Harry's body from the street - cannot be found. In fact, several of the other witnesses deny his existence. With help from Anna and in the face of stern opposition from Calloway, Holly pushes on with his investigation until he discovers that Harry's death was an illusion. The man Holly once called a close friend is very much alive, and the mastermind of a horrifying fraud that has replaced good penicillin with bad, resulting in widespread death and disease.

The plum role belongs to Welles, who, despite being in the film for only 40 minutes, creates one of the most memorable characters in the history of film noir. His Harry Lime was so famous, in fact, that British radio created a series of radio plays featuring Lime pre-The Third Man, and hired Welles to once again play the part. Welles is given one of the greatest entries of any motion picture character - suddenly illuminated in the darkened alcove where he is standing, a sardonic, half-mocking expression on his face. Harry is the devil - diabolical and amoral (his greed has resulted in death and misery for countless children who relied upon the doctored penicillin), yet cheerful and charismatic. His most famous words, a short speech written by Welles, say a lot about his character and motivations: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Welles' most important contribution to cinema may be Citizen Kane, but a large segment of the movie-going population will remember him as Harry Lime.

Despite being billed above Welles, Joseph Cotten is often the forgotten man in The Third Man, yet the movie wouldn't have been the same without him. Reed may have wanted Stewart, but it's hard to argue with the job turned in by Cotten, who offers a telling portrait of someone coming to grips with betrayal - both his own and his best friend's. The underlying reasons behind the betrayals don't much matter (Harry committed his out of greed, while Holly's is motivated by the desire to get a criminal off the streets), and both have consequences. Holly begins the movie as an innocent - a writer of Zane Gray-style Westerns who is in Vienna on a lark. After the events of The Third Man, he has learned a number of hard lessons about friendship, loyalty, and justice.

The film's love interest/femme fatale is played by Italian actress Alida Valli (billed during the original release as "Valli"), who brings both a hard edge and a softer vulnerability to the part. Like many women in film noir, she is the object of unrequited love, and, being aware of the protagonist's interest in her, she manipulates his affection. This Ingrid Bergman-like performance represented the high point of Valli's career as an actress in English-language films. However, while her star never ascended in Hollywood, she has more than 100 Italian credits on her resume (including two stints under legendary horror director Dario Argento). British actor Trevor Howard, near the beginning of a long and prosperous career, is Major Calloway. Ernst Deutsch is the thoroughly disreputable Baron Kurtz (whose appearance suggests "weasel" and "rat"). And, in a smaller role, Bernard Lee plays Sergeant Paine, Calloway's right-hand man. Lee is probably best known as "M", James Bond's boss - a role he essayed from the start of the series until poor health caused him to retire after Moonraker (that's 11 appearances).

From a visual standpoint, The Third Man consistently impresses. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp and clean. Orson Welles is credited as once saying that every performance is better in black-and-white, and, viewing something like The Third Man, it's not hard to understand why. The atmosphere is deeper and the images are more striking. This is especially true of the settings across Vienna, and below the streets in the sewers, where the final chase and confrontation transpire (although a British sound stage was erected to double for this location when Welles refused to film in the actual sewers). Reed and his cinematographer utilize numerous odd angles for their shots, and play with shadows in interesting ways. Who can forget the appearance of a balloon seller, whose shadow towers high over the benighted streets? That is one of many images that lingers.

Anton Karas' score for the film, played on a zither, is one of The Third Man's most successful innovations. Instead of relying on the usual somber, moody orchestral music that was typical for noir endeavors, Reed elected to gamble by traversing a different route (one opposed by Selznick). However, Karas' singular themes work so well when wed to The Third Man's visuals that it's almost impossible to envision the film compiled in a different way. There's something jaunty yet melancholy about the sound of the zither that captures the mood in a way that a traditional arrangement would have been unable to do.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the film's ending. It's a long, unbroken shot of Holly standing by the side of the road, waiting for Anna. Without even a glance in his direction, she approaches from a distance, passes him, and continues towards the camera until she walks out of frame. The camera lingers on Holly as he lights up a cigarette and apparently realizes that he is not, after all, going to get the girl. It's the perfect way to conclude the film, and is all the more memorable because of the manner in which it was photographed. Both Selznick and author Graham Greene had initially argued for something more upbeat (Holly and Anna walking off arm-in-arm), but Reed disagreed. He felt this was the right way to end things, and, fortunately, his interpretation was victorious.

For lovers of film noir, The Third Man is unquestionably a must-see - one of the masterpieces of a genre that has contained everything from milestone motion pictures to low-budget potboilers. Due in large part to the meticulousness of those involved, the movie is virtually without flaw. It's a standout from an era in which there were many great films, and a blueprint for countless second-rate copycat thrillers to come afterwards. The Third Man manages the laudable feat of combining popular entertainment with artistic achievement, making it an engaging and compelling viewing experience for nearly any potential audience member, regardless of his or her background and outlook.

Third Man, The (United Kingdom, 1949)

Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Music: Anton Karas
U.S. Distributor: Rialto Pictures
Ranked #75 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1