A film review by Craig J. Koban


Rank: #4


60th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1949, no MPAA rating, 104 mins.

Holly Martins: Joseph Cotten / Anna Schmidt: Alida Valli / Maj. Calloway: Trevor Howard / Harry Lime: Orson Welles Porter: Paul Hoerbiger ``Baron'' Kurtz: Ernst Deutsch Dr. Winkel: Erich Ponto Popescu: Siegfried Breuer Old Woman: Hedwig Bleibtreu Sgt. Paine: Bernard Lee Crabbin: Wilfrid Hyde-White

Directed by Carol Reed/  Screenplay by Graham Greene

Carol Reed’s magnificent post-WWII film noir, THE THIRD MAN, has always felt like the cold-hearted and emotionally weary distant cousin to CASABLANCA.  

Both films came out in the 1940’s and both commented on the relatively same socio-political times.  CASABLANCA – still an immortal classic of the cinema, to be sure – reflected more of a sincere optimism and a hopeful vigor of its war-torn settings, but Reed’s dark and morally ambivalent THE THIRD MAN is an altogether different beast: his film is bathed in distressing, nihilistic waters.  There is an unrelenting aura of paranoia, confusion, and most importantly, a sense of deep personal betrayal that permeates this 1949 film.  Whereas CASABLANCA offered hopefulness with its characters and had a more traditional Hollywood love triangle storyline, THE THIRD MAN typified – with reasonable accuracy – just how shaken and distraught many post-war countries were at the time.   

The two films share many other similarities.  Both involve idealistic, straightforward, and heavy drinking American characters caught within a web of turmoil.  Both films have the requisite love interest that challenges the leading man’s ethical choices.  Both films involve shadowy and enigmatic villains.  Both films involve alliances that may or may not be shattered at a latter time.  Yet, the one overwhelming aspect that segregates the two films is their overall aesthetic differences and their choice of tone.  

THE THIRD MAN was one of the first in the line of the neo-realist films (using real war-torn locations, real extras many times over, and real settings and historical themes) and felt less like a staged movie production than it did a pseudo-documentary of its time.  Even more glaring in terms of differences is THE THIRD MAN’s almost exhausted sense of decay.  Just consider: In the film the hero - presented as idealistic, a bit pompous, and socially clumsy - falls for a femme fatale that never falls for him back (in the end, she decides to keep her allegiances with the warped and unremorsefully evil villain of the film).  The basic understanding of the character dynamics are what gives Reed’s film noir an added sense of dread and pathos, but its also intriguing to see how it also typifies Americans as more than a bit naïve and ignorant.  THE THIRD MAN’s hero is anything but the sort: He sort of stumbles his way through the convoluted maze of post-war Vienna, not truly having a real clue of what he’s doing or what he has gotten himself into.  His ultimate attempts at wooing the girl are all but futile, seeing as she is a woman that not only has bore the brunt of living in a city devastated by war, but has eked out a fragile existence largely because her relationship to the villain.  The hero has nothing to offer this woman because, sadly enough, the immoral and deplorable villain helped the woman in ways the hero will never fully comprehend. 

It’s that angle that has always intrigued me about THE THIRD MAN.  Yes, the film is an absolute tour de force visual odyssey that will be lovingly appreciated for decades to come (this is one of the very few films that can be endlessly compelling just from a visual standpoint), but the ambitious and highly pessimistic script by Graham Greene is the film's real source of intrigue.  The film has elements of the finest examples of Hollywood productions and the artistic traditions and style of Alfred Hitchcock, but its story seemingly eclipses films of that pedigree in its sense of bleakness and despondency.  Greene and Reed were clearly inspired by the finer nuances of film noir, but this stylistic choice does not just serve to be used for the sake of pompous artistic hubris alone.  Framing THE THIRD MAN in the veil of a noir helped to heighten and amplify the film’s fatalistic harshness.  It’s almost impossible to imagine what film could have resulted if it were made with more conventional means of the time.  Certainly, the whole flavor of the film would have been totally lost. 

If there were one thing that THE THIRD MAN – even 60-years after its initial release – shows students of film it is that the finest examples of the film noir genre were not American, but British.  THE THIRD MAN was ostensibly a Brit production (both Greene and Reed were from the UK), despite the obvious American connections (stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles were Yanks, ditto for one of the film’s producers, David O. Selznick), as well as its other mixed-country collaborations (one of the other producers was the Hungarian Alexander Korda and the shooting location was Vienna).  Yet, it is Reed’s magnificent visual opulence and Greene’s cynical and glum script that make THE THIRD MAN stand firmly and confidently apart from other recent American noirs of its time, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE BIG SLEEP. 

THE THIRD MAN was Reed’s second collaboration with Greene (the first was during 1948’s THE FALLEN IDOL), but the second film would be their most legendary and critically lauded effort.  The making of the film is kind of the stuff of production legend (and the source of a brilliantly insightful documentary that appears on Criterion’s glorious Blu-ray release, commemorating the film’s 60th Birthday):  Reed and Selznick were known to clash vigorously over every minute detail of the production.  Selznick, being a man of Hollywood conventions and production styles, yearned for Reed to film THE THIRD MAN on large scale and controlled sets, use a traditional music score, and cast more well-known American actors for the roles of the scoundrel Harry Lime and the lumbering hero Holly Martins.   Reed originally wanted Cary Grant for the role of Lime and James Stewart for Martins, both of whom would have been respectable choices.  The truly big debate that engulfed the production was Reed’s insistence on casting Orson Welles as Lime in a role that ultimately can now be considered one of the actor’s greatest after CITIZEN KANE. 

Welles ignited a firestorm of controversy and animosity between all of the creative forces.  Zelznick was deeply against the auteur’s casting, seeing as he was considered box office poison in America at the time.  What ultimately secured Welles' casting was his choice of taking a straight salary over a percentage of the profits (a choice that the actor dreadfully regretted later in life, seeing as the film became a gigantic hit at the box office).  Unfortunately, his choice of financial compensation was hardly the problem with his inclusion in the cast of the film.  The semi-reclusive actor/director showed up to the production in Vienna several weeks late, before which time he amused himself by shrewdly evading the film’s production staff by traveling in and out of hotels throughout Europe.  Reed, having to think on his feet, was forced to film various scenic shots that would not require Welles, not to mention that he required the use of doubles for distant shots when the actor was not available.  Perhaps even worse was the fact that, when Welles did arrive, he refused to film some of the various scenes in the sewers of Vienna during the film’s legendary final act.  Due to the actor’s indulgent refusals, the production team were forced to recreate large sections of the sewer systems on sound stages back in England.  Having never know this bit of trivia beforehand, viewers will be very hard pressed to tell where the real sewers begin and the fabricated ones end.  The effect is one of the finest examples of movie-make-believe I have ever seen. 

Arguments abounded even when the film was released and distributed.  When the film was finally given the rights to a release stateside, Selznick replaced the opening narration (provided by Reed himself, setting up the film’s ethical ambivalence perfectly) inexplicably with Cotten.  Even worse was the fact that he also cut seven minutes of footage, including most references to Cotton’s Holly Martins being an implied alcoholic or any other notions or inferences that he was less than a heroic figure.  The limitless shortsightedness of Selznick was his failure to comprehend that the elements he excised were some of the very reasons why THE THIRD MAN worked so splendidly.  To remove Martins’ character flaws would be to make him a flawless and one-note American hero, and much of the thematic point that Reed and Greene were trying to accentuate was the sense of a naïve American authority in post-war matters in other countries.  What makes Cottens’ portrayal so much more resonating is the fact that Martins thinks he knows what he’s doing throughout the film, but, in harsh reality, he has no real clue as to what he’s doing.  His frequently blank expressions and sense of alienated naiveté marks a stark contrast to the evil forces at work in the film that he has no chance of subduing.   

The production woes and dicey relationship between Reed and Selznick had some unalterable effects on both of the men.  The making of THE THIRD MAN was more of a hellish ordeal than a production collaboration made in heaven.  Selznick, a chronic overseer and workaholic, was notoriously hooked on Dexedrine (or “speed”) and, coincidentally, Reed’s Herculean work habits on the film resulted in him also becoming hooked on the drug.  The shooting schedule was egregiously time-consuming for the director, who insisted that all three films units – that shot during the day and the other into graveyard hours – were supervised himself.  Since he insisted on being a part of al three units, the director worked nearly 20 hours per day.  Both Reed and Selznick disagreed on much, but they shared the commonality of only having roughly two hours sleep a night wile making THE THIRD MAN. 

If there was an instance (and a rare one at that) were the studio head’s ideas were the right ones, then it would certainly be with Selznick’s dire insistence that Reed use contract player Joseph Cotten for the role of Martins and leave the ending of the film set on a dour and depressing note.  Cotten’s inclusion (he also collaborated with Welles on CITIZEN KANE) was the silent coup of the THE THIRD MAN’S production, not to mention that it gave his long-awaited confrontation with Welles’ Harry Lime an added level of gravitas.  The film’s ending – which will be discussed later – would have also never worked as effectively with a happy and less ambiguous climax. 

Perhaps the biggest squabbles between the two power powers of the crew were over the choice of music.  Can anyone even conceive watching THE THIRD MAN without the immortal cords of musicians Anton Karas’ zither permeating every beat of the film?  Legend has it that Reed heard Karas playing at a production party and, as a result, insisted that the Austrian musical instrument be a crucial and omnipotent musical force in his film.  Reed, knowing full well the tone that his post-war film was trying to emulate, realized that traditional, Old-Vienna music could not work as effectively for THE THIRD MAN as the work of a solo musical instrument, which ultimately gave the film its lyrical, frequently beguiling, and mesmerizing evocativeness.   This was one of the very rare instances where the film’s music becomes a background figure, commenting on the mood of characters and largely creating the tone of polarized dislocation and corruption that paralyzed post-war Vienna.  The main theme for THE THIRD MAN ended up becoming one of the biggest recordings of 1950, but it also emerged as one of the most colorful, flashy, and lively musical scores in the history of the art form.  Rarely has a music score felt more ethereally alive as a presence in a film. 

The film, as frequently stated, is largely concerned with the bombed out, war torn, and dark corners and caverns of Vienna’s streets.  After the spirited “I never knew Vienna before the war…” prologue (thankfully restored to Reed’s voice via the Criterion release), we see and learn about how the new Vienna is a decimated city divided into French, American, British, and Russian zones.  Dropped into the middle of all of this chaotic, confused, and unsavory climate is an innocent American author named Holly Martins (Cotten), a semi-washed up, alcoholic writer of trashy, B-grade western novels.  He has arrived to take a job that was offered to him by long-time friend, Harry Lime (Welles).  Unfortunately, when he arrives he learns that Lime has recently died in a terrible traffic accident.  While at his funeral he meets Major Calloway (the delightful Trevor Howard), who works for the local British military police that intuitively tells Holly that his best course of action is to head straight back home.  Holly, being a crude, but curious character refuses, partially because he’s intrigued as to the truth about his buddy’s death, but perhaps more because he has become smitten with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, very Ingrid Bergman-esque in her crucial part), who we learn was very close to Lime.   

Against Calloway’s insistence to return home, Holly decides to some investigation of his own disguised as sightseeing.  Slowly, but surely, he begins to see that not all is what it appears and, even more shocking, there are small clues that point out that Harry still may be alive.  He meets up with an eclectic group of city folk, all given differing eyewitness testimonies (one tells him that a third man – one that removed Harry’s body from the street – cannot be found).  Eventually, Holly discovers that his friend’s death was just a cover-up for Harry’s real end game, selling good penicillin on the black market while letting bad versions of it kill countless children while suffering in hospitals as a result.  Now having to deal with the realization that his former friend is now a criminal mastermind and unpardonable rogue, Holly decides to confront Harry once and for all about the widespread death and disease he is causing in his efforts to make a dirty buck. 

Of course, the confrontation between Harry and Holly – all set on a gigantic Vienna Ferris wheel – is one of the film’s real treats, especially considering that we are seeing two of the stars of CITIZEN KANE go mano-a-mano.  It also goes to prove (a) what a thanklessly naturalistic talent that Cotten was, especially during the pre-Method era of stilted and stiff performances and (b) what a sublimely original creation Harry Lime is: he’s one of the most memorable villains in the history of the medium.  Cotton in particular is has been largely overlooked in the film, but it is his searing and frequently touching performance as a man that has to deal with a life altering betrayal that gives the film a true heartbeat.  Clearly, Lime is in the forefront, and his reveal in the film also is easily the most famous and unforgettable of the movies, with his face being illuminated by the bright lights of a nearby apartment window, after which he gives his drunken friend – whom has though he’s been dead up to this time – a sardonic and mischievous grin.   

Their later confrontation of the Ferris wheel further reveals the heartlessness of Harry as the villain.  This man is clearly a vile and detestable force for his criminal activities, but the way Welles playfully performs with a dash of charisma and well-spoken eloquence makes Lime sort of a likeable and cultured cretin, not too dissimilar form how Anthony Hopkins would play Hannibal Lector 40-plus years later.  The manner with which he responds to Holly’s charges of immoral criminal activity reflects both Lime’s careful poetry with words, not to mention his undying and manipulative fiendishness: “I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims?  Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?  If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”  His calm-spoken disregard to humanity is totally chilling. 

The greatest passage of dialogue was actually authored by Welles himself, during which Lime tries to offer a maddening, but somewhat logical, motivation for his actions: "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."  Although Welles has wrongly credited himself with writing all of Lime’s dialogue, it is true that he wrote this impromptu speech, THE THIRD MAN’S most famous, as it shows Lime simultaneously at his most sinister, corrupt, and whimsical.  Second to Charles Foster Kane, this is Welles’ most ravishingly iconic role.  

The film’s climatic conclusion, a foot race which involves a jolting, fever pitched, and perfectly edited chase sequence through the sewers of Vienna to apprehend Lime, is one of the most wonderfully realized and constructed action sequences ever conceived.  The way Reed here juxtaposes tight shoots of Lime’s desperate and tired face with long vistas of the foreboding and dreary sewer canals and corners is a visual nirvana.  Reed paints his images with such a loving regard to lighting and shadow play, not to mention skewed angles to elevate the emotional tension, have been duplicated countless times after, to much lesser success. 

For that matter, so much of the visual tapestry of THE THIRD MAN stays with viewers forever.  The biggest artistic accomplishment of the film was its staunch use of real locations: Vienna becomes a character in itself in the film, and Reed’s documentarian eye for detail here lends a credible realism that films of its time did not have.  Robert Krasker’s lush and intimidating cinematography rightfully sees Vienna as a city of both incomparable beauty and one that has been scared by the ravages of war.  The utilization of real war torn streets and allies is crucial to the film’s impact: Just try to imagine Joseph Cotton walking through manufactured dilapidated street via sets or visual effects…the results would have been largely diminutive.  Having the legacy of being the first British film shot entirely on location is one of THE THIRD MAN’s greatest feats: its canted camera angles, lens distortions, and atmospheric and shadowy Vienna locales apply added layers to the unsettled and fractured state that the city suffered through in the wake of war. 

Then, of course, there is the ending, which was the subject of great contention from all makers involved.  Greene shockingly wanted a happy conclusion for the film, with Holly finally embracing Anna Schmidt after Lime’s real funeral, but the uncharacteristically shrewd Selznick argued for the opposite.  This choice is in stark contrast to the endings that graced American films and Reed inevitably also agreed with the choice.  This would lead to the film’s single most memorable and melancholic shot – which seems to linger forever – where Holly waits, and waits…and waits...for Anna to approach him at the cemetery, only for him to see her coldly walking right by him without a look or care in the world.  The crushing sadness of THE THIRD MAN is that, when all is sad and done, the "bad" girl never turns good and the good guy does not get her.  Instead, she would rather be associated with a rat that has poisoned children than with a noble and decent man. 

The legacy of THE THIRD MAN cannot be overestimated.  It frequently tops list of the greatest films ever made and recently toped the list of the greatest British movies of all-time.  The AFI recently voted it the fifth greatest Mystery film ever produced.  Film scholars and students continue to ardently study the film as a source of inspiration.  Surprisingly, the film was not an Oscar darling, despite critical and audience praise, and mustered only three nominations after its release (for Director, Editing, and Score, the last of which it won handily and quite deservingly).  THE THIRD MAN did win the Grand Prix Award at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in its native country’s version of the ceremony.  But perhaps its most damning legacy was how it quietly slipped into public domain in the US when its copyright was not renewed after Selznick’s death.  Thankfully, the US copyright was restored in 1996 and the Criterion Collection – which gracefully honors the finest in classic and contemporary film preservation – came to this film’s rescue; THE THIRD MAN is the very best reason to run out and support their impressive catalogue of films. 

Very few films are ever lucky and fortunate enough to totally transcend their respective genres, and Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN is one of those entries.  What the film did was blend the finest of both American and European sensibilities into a masterstroke film noir that has been lauded for decades and used as the go-to film when looking to see how film noirs should be handled.  The film is a marvelous marriage of post-war intrigue, a mystery thriller, a doomed love story, and ultimately a tail of a downtrodden and out-of-his-element American that sees that there is more to his simplistic life than the trashy and painfully routine dime novels he pens.  THE THIRD MAN is a film that confidently traverses between three distinct hemispheres: it’s unquestionably one of the most evocative looking films ever directed, but it also finds a heart in the story of man that is looking for love is all of the wrong places, not to mention that it was a sobering walk-up call to people that thought that all was well with the Allied victory post WWII.   THE THIRD MAN daringly attacked filmmaking conventions and norms of its time and went beyond them to foster a work of unbridled originality, flair and ingenuity.  Even six decades after its release, it still commands, and deserves, high placement of the greatest films of all time.

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