Wednesday, April 14, 2010

#11: The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Released: September 2, 1949 (UK)

Director: Carol Reed; Screenplay: Graham Greene based on his own novel; Cinematography: Robert Krasker; Music: Anton Karas; Producer: Carol Reed; Studio: British Lion Films

Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway), Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel), Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu), Paul Horbiger (Karl)

- “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…”

The superlatives that have been heaped upon this film are impressive. Most agree that The Third Man is the finest British noir ever made (some proponents of Night and the City might slightly disagree). Some feel that accolade does not do justice to the greatness of this film – they say that it is the finest movie ever made in the UK. A few admirers will even go so far as to argue that this effort from Carol Reed is the best movie that has ever been made, in any nation, regardless of genre or classification. While I won’t go so far as to back up that final assertion, I can’t dispute the first two. It _is_ the finest of all British noirs. And it is _is_ the best film to be made in the UK that I have seen (although I do love Reed's The Fallen Idol as well, but no longer consider it The Third Man's equal). It is a complete master class in filmmaking, possessing all of the ingredients necessary for a great film. An enigmatic story and screenplay from the great Graham Greene provides the template for the talent. The acting is on-point throughout. The direction of Sir Carol Reed is damn near perfect. And the visuals and atmospherics that Reed worked to create with Robert Krasker are now legendary in the history of cinema.

The story is likely one that everyone is familiar with. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is an American writer of pulp western novels who travels to postwar Vienna at the behest of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When he gets to Vienna, Holly is stunned to learn that Harry has recently died. While attending his friend’s funeral, Holly bumps into Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who warns Holly to leave Vienna and forget his old pal. Now even more intrigued, Holly decides to delve into the circumstances of Harry’s death and try to uncover what actually happened. The official story was that Harry was accidentally struck by a fast-moving automobile, but Holly is suspicious. Getting close to Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Harry’s former girlfriend, Holly is introduced to the cast of characters that last saw Harry before his death. The deeper his investigation goes, the more convinced Holly becomes that there was another witness – a “third man” – that has not come forward and might know more about the “accident” that killed Harry. At the same time, Major Calloway begins to give Holly clues about the type of person that Harry became, continually encouraging Holly to forget about him and leave Vienna. Holly soldiers on in his quest to vindicate his friend, but in the process uncovers something even more horrifying.

Greene’s story really is a treasure, as the majority of the film centers on an intriguing mystery, while eventually making that same mystery almost secondary. As the movie progresses, solving the mystery becomes less important than examining the bonds of friendship. How strong are such bonds? When do moral obligations trump a lifelong friendship? Holly wants desperately to believe that Harry is the same old pal that he has always known. As more facts concerning Harry’s activities are revealed to him, Holly still cannot accept the fact that his friend has turned into a human piranha. Holly feels that he has to vindicate his friend. When he finally comes face-to-face with Harry and tries to get answers, the friendship is strained to the limit.

This is another instance where rumors have continually swirled about Orson Welles actually having a role in directing. Certainly there are visual flourishes that one could picture Welles pulling off. But from everything that I have read, with both Welles and Carol Reed speaking on the topic, he definitely did not direct any part of the film. Welles only became attached to the project as an actor because he was strapped for cash in trying to make his own film. Which means that Carol Reed and Robert Krasker deserve all the praise in the world for the visual style of this film. It is an absolute landmark in cinematography and camera work. The surreal, slanted camera angles are the perfect counterpoint to the distorted, crooked machinations of the lead characters. The photography, with the starkest differences in lights and darks that one will see in noir, is as impressive as any film that will be included in this countdown. The scenes of the famed sewer chase are iconic – even people who are not familiar with The Third Man are likely to recognize the individual frames taken from that sequence.

But it is not just the visuals. The actors involved shine as well. Although he is on-screen for less than half of the film, the shadow of Welles’ Harry Lime hangs over everything, both literally and figuratively. The revelation of Harry standing in the darkened doorway, a sly grin across his face, is one of the great introductions of all time. Welles makes his limited time count, creating such a charmingly diabolical personality for Harry that the viewer almost hates the fact that they have to dislike him. The monologue at the beginning of this write-up was not actually in Greene’s screenplay and was famously added by Welles himself during filming. Regardless of its historical veracity or lack thereof (evidently Switzerland actually _was_ a military power at one point? Who knew…), it is a brilliant bit of writing and is delivered flawlessly by Welles. In another great historical irony, Welles was offered the option to take a salary for his work or be paid in a share of the movie’s profits. Needing the money, he chose the former. The movie then of course went on to be a huge success, costing Welles untold amounts of money. Such was his luck when it came to movies and finances. One also cannot overlook the contributions of Welles’ longtime collaborator Joseph Cotten, who played the sophisticated everyman as well anyone (Jimmy Stewart included). The assorted cast of Harry’s associates also turns in impressive work, as does the great Trevor Howard.

I’ll bring this one to a close now, just so it doesn’t look like I’m giving this movie more coverage than other entries – this is already one of the longer essays penned for the countdown. And yet, I still didn’t get to all of the key attributes of this great film – how can one overlook the unforgettable zither score from Anton Karas? It is just another wonderful element in the overall experience. This is cinema at its best.


  1. An incredible film. Welles did get to live off it a bit by playing Harry Lime on the radio, and he deserved the opportunity; it's one of his best outings as an actor. The film is certainly a definitive noir visually speaking, and your screenshot shows one of the greatest closing shots in all cinema. So there's a full ten better than this? We'll see....

  2. Samuel - I think there are... or at least 10 that slightly get the nod from me. But, then again, you honestly could invert the Top 12 and I wouldn't argue too much. Great films all around.

  3. One of the greatest films in the history of the cinema, and my personal favorite British film of all-time in any genre. Hence this does not in my book finish outside of the top ten (for me it's a very strong contender for the #1 spot with a few others I know I will see here soon) but as I've said before we're getting now to the point of semantics, where numerical placement is all relative, as you suggest there with your posing of inversion yielding the same results. Strictly as a 'British noir' I'd rate NIGHT AND THE CITY on equal terms here, and might on some days even place the Dassin higher, but I've always considered THE THIRD MAN as something even more than noir. I've discussed the film so many times from my end that I'll spare you the hyperbolistic lingo and pompous assertions. Besides, you long essay here really hit the mark exceedingly well. It's fun time at Good Fellas, with the Top Ten ready to unfold!

  4. Honestly, I think any discussion of the greatest British cinema kind of starts and ends with the Archers, and Powell might be my favorite of all directors. But Reed has made some great films, this being one of them. Dave, if you ever have a chance to see this on the big screen definitely take it. One of the best experiences I've ever had in the theater was when the light finally shines out illuminating Welles' face and several people in the audience gasped. To have that, a movie made fifty years and people still gasping when you see Lime's face, is a beautiful thing.

  5. Great piece, Dave. In fact I was half-expecting that your next piece would be on Third Man. Telepathy, anyone?

    Though I belong to the group of "some proponents" which you mentioned regarding Night & the City, there's no doubting the greatness of this movie. The visuals & atmospherics, as you say, were terrific. And the score, too.

    The movie also gave us 2 of the greatest scenes in cinematic history - the brilliant introduction of Harry Lime when he emerges out of the shadows with that sly grin, & the elaborate climax inside the dank, claustrophobic & labyrinthine sewerage system of Vienna.

    The acting was certainly good throughout, but the standout performance was that of Orson Welles. That's an interesting tidbit you've shared with us about Welles choosing salary over share in profits. And yes, as you say, there's not historical veracity of the iconic monologue which you've quoted at the beginning of this piece, but it still remains one of the most cynical & iconic quotes in the history of film noirs.

  6. By the way, I'm unanimous with Sam in that we're all looking forward to the next 10 films in this countdown of yours :)

  7. The Third Man is a true work of art. It would definitely make my top ten. I never knew that Welles took a salary instead of a share in film profits. Who knows what other great films he might of been able to finance or direct. At minimum he might not have had to struggle to finish the ones he did eventually complete. The technical accomplishments of this movie are startling. I guess Carol Reed should take it as a compliment that he made a film so visually rich that viewers were certain that Welles was at the helm. Like everyone else I look forward to your final 10.......M.Roca

  8. I just watched this for the first time last year and for my personal list of film noir (which wouldn't be 1/10th as exhaustive as yours) it'd probably be in the top 3. So that lets on that there are ten very fine films to be upcoming.

    I notice you aren't rating these as you go -- at what point did we hit all "perfect 10" movies on this list, from your perspective, Dave, or do you not give that rating to THE THIRD MAN?

  9. Definitely one of the greats, the music, the acting, the cinematography all exceptionally executed. a wonderful essay I cannot add more than what the others have. I would love to see this on the big screen.

  10. This film grew on me to the point of obsession. When I watched it for the first time (when I just couldn't stand Joseph Cotten), I said, "So what?" Except for the powerful ending (I am very fond of movies where the guy does NOT get the girl -- maybe some day I will do a post about them in my blog), it did nothing to me. But after a time, like 2 or 3 yrs later, I watched it again and just loved it. The haunting music, Orson and the creepy shadows are the best parts of it. (Still neutral to Joe Cotten, though.)

  11. Donophon, I agree with you that Powell and Pressburger were the greatest artists in the history of British cinema, and no less than four of their films (BLACK NARCISSUS, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, THE RED SHOES, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) standing as masterpieces, while a few others like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, A CANTERBURY TALE and THE TALES OF HOFFMAN push very close to that designation. Powell is indeed the top man, but both Carol Reed and David Lean are right beneath him, closely, career-wise. In a study of all of their films together, I still place THE THIRD MAN as tops, but I dare say of the top 10 British films, Powell/Pressburger would have about half. I know it all comes down to personal taste to a large degree, of course.

    Here's a possible Top Ten from my end:

    1. The Third Man
    2. Black Narcissus
    3. Great Expectations
    4. Brief Encounter
    5. Night in the City (Dassin)
    6. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    7. The Red Shoes
    8. Kes (Loach)
    9. A Matter of Life and Death
    10. Odd Man Out or The Tales of Hoffmann or Oliver Twist or Brighton Rock (Boulton)

    Of course when I think of Lawrence of Arabia or 2001 as British, then I must revisit my listings here! Ha! It's not easy.

  12. "This film grew on me to the point of obsession."

    Indeed Quirky Character! That is precisely the power this film exerts.

  13. Oh, and my predictions for the Top-10:
    (of course I don't presume to guess the order)

    Sweet Smell of Success
    Sunset Blvd.
    Double Indemnity
    Out of the Past
    Night of the Hunter
    The Killers
    Criss Cross
    In a Lonely Place
    Les Diaboliques
    some wild card -- maybe even Dead Reckoning (a completely wild guess)

  14. Oh, yes, thank you, Mr. Juliano, you reminded me of "Odd Man Out" -- one of Dave's Top-10 Noirs can easily be it. I couldn't bring myself to watch it till the end (I don't like James Mason), which is funny, 'cos I got the DVD for some crazy money (it's not generally available in my country). And I am spoiled about the ending, so no stimulus... Maybe one I will.

  15. Quirk your first 8 are impeccable but don't forget The Asphalt Jungle and Kiss Me Deadly. Those ten seem to be the most logical choices. Though we shouldn't speculate on future choices since it ruins the surprise elements, most film buffs are rule breakers and anti-conformists anyway!!! Les Diabolique while a masterpiece is not a classic film noir in my opinion. The same could be said for Odd Man Out which is not a true noir either. I don't think Dead Reckoning is going to make it though it could of made the bottom of this list along with Dark Passage. I'm also surprised Panic In The Streets and The Naked City didn't make the middle of the list. What we can all surmise is that Dave sure has seen a lot of noir in his life!!!!!.......M.Roca

  16. M. Roca, thanks for the input! I kinda didn't like The Asphalt Jungle (because of Sterling Hayden, who ruined the ending of The Killing for me by his bland acting), and don't remember much about it, except Marilyn's bit part, and the ending. And yes, I know Kiss Me Deadly is considered to be a great noir, but it did nothing to me but annoy -- again, because I didn't like the acting there (a bunch of irritating nobodys, really). Yeah, it was brutal (that beating is quite unforgettable) and sinister, but there was also some trash literature ("yellowish") quality about it that I did not like. Too trashy for my liking. :)

  17. Quirky Character - So you honestly don't like the acting of Sterling Hayden, Joseph Cotten, Bogart as a less than wholesome character... these preferences definitely justify your screen name! (LOL)

  18. Sam - Yes, the Top 10 should be interesting... a lot of the entries will be obvious to folks, but the ordering should be interesting.

    Doniphon - Yes, Archers are also outstanding. I'm not as familiar with their work as are you, Sam, Samuel and others, but what I have seen I really like. But I also agree that, as Sam points out, Carol Reed is worthy of discussion in the same class.

    Shubhajit - Wonderful thoughts here. I agree completely on the two great moments in the film - the introduction of Harry is just spectacular. Funny that you predicted this one... any predictions for tomorrow?

    M.Roca - Yes, this one came very close to making the Top 10, but those I have in front of it are also favorites...

    Troy - I decided not to use the rankings simply because I have trouble maintaining consistency between ratings and lists. One day I'm feeling a 9/10 more than a 10/10 and might place it above it on a list of this sort. Others, things might sync up. For instance, in my annual countdown, when I posted my review for Double Indemnity I rated it 9/10. Looking at it now (I'm not giving anything away in saying it's going to show up sooner or later!), it really is a 10/10, at least as I watch it now. As far as entering the "perfect 10" category, I'd say starting at #12 with The Killing, everything from here on would get a 10/10 from me on most days. But, as I say, I've never claimed to remain entirely consistent and I can fluctuate at times!

    John - Yes, everyone has chimed in with great comments as usual! Thanks for stopping by.

    Quirky Character - I've had similar reactions to this one... it definitely sticks with you, almost calling you back to watch it again - similar to the effect that The Conformist also had on me.

  19. One of the greatest films, period.

    BTW,after seeing the film again I'm sure the scenes in the sewer with Harry Lime are very close to the final moments of Hank Quinlon in another favourite of mine, "Touch Of Evil"....


  20. My British list is incomplete without Hamer's KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, one of the greatest comedies of all-time, and quite a black one at that.

  21. If this is number 11, then what the hell is number 1?

    Seriously...noir or not...this is one of the greatest films ever made. It's in my top five of all time.

    But splendid write-up as always...

  22. I have been lucky enough to have twice seen The Third Man on the big screen and and it is my favourite film of all time. I think because of seeing the film in full size I could really appreciate the sheer beauty of the images and the nuances of acting. As with the comment made by Doniphon the audiences also gasped at the first appearance of Welles and it remains a rapturous memory for me, it was simply the magic of cinema. The film also has everything that makes a great film noir and the sense of desolation and destruction, physically and emotionally, is outstanding.

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