When Carol Reed’s The Third Man was released in 1949 it was met with mixed reactions internationally.
Critically and commercially, it was a hit in the United Kingdom. In Austria, where the film is set, most critics were underwhelmed.
Across the Atlantic in America, after initial dismissive reviews, it was reconsidered in light of its developing commercial success, and reviews were rewritten to praise Reed for successfully blending art and entertainment.
Today it is rightfully regarded as the greatest British film of all time.
BUT WHAT MAKES THE FILM SO BRILLIANT
What makes The Third Man a brilliant film is that it is incredibly ambitious and succeeds in every daring endeavor. The Third Man is technically a piece of Film Noir. This is traditionally a genre that is associated with American movies of the 40s and not the UK. It’s not an overly complex film, despite a lot going on. It has been made to be easily understood and most importantly, to entertain, but it still challenges us with expressionist cinematography, seedy settings and the most unconventional yet unforgettable score of all time. Combine that with brilliant direction, a super tight script, incredible performances, and the greatest monologue in film history and The Third Man, in my opinion, is one movie that everyone must see at least once in their lifetime.
The plot revolves around a second-rate author of westerns, Holly Martins (played to perfection by Joseph Cotton) who arrives in a divided, post-war Vienna on the invitation of his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) on a promise of work. Things immediately go wrong for Holly. Upon arrival he is informed that Lime was struck by a car while crossing the road and killed. At the funeral, Holly meets some of Lime’s current friends, acquaintances, associates, and his lover Anna Schmidt (played by Valli). The stories recounted of Lime’s death from different perspectives all begin to sound incredibly suspicious.
Initially it is reported that Lime’s driver and a friend are those to pick up Harry and remove him from the road. Coincidentally, Lime’s doctor is walking by and pronounces him dead. But a resident in the neighbourhood recounts things a little differently; while he did not see the actual accident, he did see three men (not two) carry the body from the street. In addition to that, the police who are following Martins every move, inform him that Lime was an evil racketeer and are certain he met with foul play. This inspires Martins to adopt the persona of one of his characters in his westerns and to discover Lime’s true cause of death and innocence.
When watching the film, the first thing that strikes you is the mood and atmosphere that is created by the settings, as well as Robert Krasker’s artistry as a cinematographer. While the techniques used were not new, his expressionistic view, common in the silent films of Germany in the twenties, was not the norm in a modern British film.
Krasker’s use of stark black and white, harsh lighting, and disorientating Dutch Tilt (a technique where the camera is set at an angle so the horizon appears diagonally) enable the viewer to better relate to Martin’s world which has just been turned upside-down.
Renowned author Graham Greene (Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory) with the uncredited assistance from Carol Reed and Orson Welles, produced a script that was not only tight and thrilling but also humorous, romantic, horrific, and utterly believable. The dialogue is rich and real, and never pretentious. Lime’s speech in the Ferris wheel is an astonishing feat on its own. What is being said, how it is being said, is nothing short of brilliant. Martin’s reaction as his world has been turned upside down once again is just as remarkable.
Much has been written about Orson Welles. He was a visionary, a talented actor, gifted writer and director that was ahead of his time. Welles became disillusioned with the movie business and its unwillingness to explore the artistic possibilities of the medium and swore to never be a leading man again. In The Third Man, Welles appears in it for less than 10 minutes, yet the power of his performance and presence leaves you thinking he was much more visible. Joseph Cotton, who had been a friend and colleague of Welles since the thirties in the Mercury Theatre, delivers a career high performance (and that is no small feat for the man was a principal character in Citizen Kane and in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt).
He embodies the confusion, the passion and innocence of Holly Martins perfectly. Trevor Howard, as the Police Major Calloway, displays cynicism, compassion, understanding and worldlines every time he appears on screen.
As for Valli, who rose to fame as an Italian beauty (Mussolini called her the “most beautiful woman in the world”) proves she is not just a pretty face.
Her performance is wonderfully understated. She expresses so much without having to use words. While Cotton’s character has the greatest arc, she is definitely the one who has gone through the most.
Finally, there is Anton Karas’ score that is performed almost entirely on a zither. No review of The Third Man could possibly conclude without mentioning the zither score. Much has been said of the music featured in the film. While some people love it, many have hated it. Regardless, Reed’s decision to refrain from using a traditional orchestrated score is a bold and powerful one that I believe adds to the out of place world of The Third Man.