THE THIRD MAN (1949) B/W 104m dir: Carol Reed
w/Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Paul Hoerbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, Siegfried Breuer, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen
A classic from start to finish. Pulp writer of westerns Holly Martins (Cotten) searches through the intrigue-filled streets of postwar Vienna for traces of his old friend Harry Lime (Welles) in this taut thriller.
From The Movie Guide: "A gripping, beautifully structured picture and a tour de force from British director Carol Reed. ...
"There's so much to recommend THE THIRD MAN that one can only scratch the surface in mentioning its strengths. It gives the incredibly intoxicating feel of being a happy accident, and yet the ingredients are all there. Anton Karas's amazing zither music will haunt you for the rest of your life, and yet you will never mind. The camerawork of genius [Robert] Krasker (Britain's greatest at that time) makes marvelous use of realistic city locales, darkly menacing alleys and inventively canted framings. The dozens of references to Harry Lime really prime us for his delayed appearance, and Orson Welles's enigmatic performance is so electric that one is not disappointed. (That entrance, in fact, remains one of cinema's greatest.) Cotten, meanwhile, gives a tangy yet subtle spin to the concept of the Ugly American abroad, and Howard lends both sympathy and edge to the determined police inspector. Valli, an intense and gifted Italian star, gives a poignant performance as well. Reed's direction has perhaps never been better, from the thrilling chase through the sewers to the accusations of the little boy to the quieter romantic moments, and Graham Greene's script is both adult and suspenseful. It's hard to choose just one scene to sum up this poetic thriller, but the legendary scene on the ferris wheel may best represent its perfect blend of great writing, acting, and directing, The fadeout, too, is unforgettable."
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "This thriller is set in postwar Vienna and is in some ways a portrait of the 'cold war,' then in its early stages. Carol Reed's perfectly controlled technique, somewhat reminiscent of Lang and Hitchcock, creates an overwhelming melancholy atmosphere that is heightened by the haunting, relentless zither music and the sharply drawn and well-acted characters. Most notable of these, and an important element in the film's international success, is Orson Welles as Harry Lime. According to Carol Reed (quoted by Peter Noble), Welles nearly refused the role, which he thought too small: 'Orson suddenly turned up one morning, just as we had set up our cameras in the famous sewers. He told me that he felt very ill, had just got over a bout of influenza, and could not possibly play the role ... I entreated him, in any case, just to stay and play the scene we had prepared, where he is chased along the sewers ... Reluctantly he agreed. "Those sewers will give me pneumonia!" he grumbled, as he descended the iron steps. We shot the scene. Then Orson asked us to shoot it again, although I was satisfied with the first "take." He talked with the cameraman, made some suggestions, and did the chase again. Then again. The upshot was that Orson did that scene ten times, became enthusiastic about the story --- and stayed in Vienna to finish the picture.' However, as much as Welles dominates the film, one should not assume that Graham Greene's dialogue reflects his own attitudes,"
Warning! The following material contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film:
From the British Film Institute's international film magazine Sight & Sound (September 2012, volume 22, issue 9, page 136), this article by Nick James examines the ending of THE THIRD MAN: "In a discussion last year on screenwriting, David Hare suggested that Hollywood's filmmakers and development people put too much creative effort into the opening scenes of films, to the detriment of their outcomes. If a story-based film is really strong, part of us wants it never to end --- unless, that is, there's a restitution we desperately want to see. That's why we often feel during the last reel as if we're holding off a letdown. You can sense, too, the reluctance of some screenwriters to drag their tale to a finish that seems all too obvious to their better selves --- which is perhaps why inappropriate ideas that try our credulity get tacked on. These are some of the reasons why a film that may have touched greatness can then seem to dwindle rather than leaving us stunned that it's all over. It's also surprising how often endings feel as if they're from a different film. All of these difficulties make a regular item on great film endings irresistible to us.
"In one single long shot, the ending of The Third Man (1949) pays off the moral ambivalence writer Graham Greene, director Carol Reed and actor Orson Welles have encouraged us to feel towards Harry Lime, the supposedly deceased American racketeer in Vienna whose true nature is the film's central mystery. Greene's famous suggestion (which smacks of impossible foreknowledge that his sometime M16 friend Kim Philby was a spy for the Russians) was that the loyalty you owe to a friend is more important than any you owe to an ideology or nation state. That's why this scene centres on Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), the film's 'dummy' protagonist (rather than Lime, the real one). Martins is a sentimentalist writer of western 'cheap novelettes' who has protested his great friendship for Lime throughout the film, only to be persuaded at the last to betray him because of the terrible suffering he's inflicted.
"The scene takes place at the huge Zentralfriedhof cemetery, where Lime has just been buried for the second, more certain time. With the ceremony over, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) offers Martins a lift to the airport in his British army jeep. They pass Lime's former lover Anna (Alida Valli), a fatalistic Czech actress who remained loyal to Lime despite his leading her (and the world) to believe he was dead (hence the first burial). She's walking down the bleak, seemingly endless, tree-lined avenue. Her false papers have been seized by the Russians, who will almost certainly send her back to Czechoslovakia, probably to some kind of gulag.
"'Can't you do something about Anna?' Martins asks.
"'I'll do what I can, if she'll let me,' says Calloway.
"There's a closeup of Martins in profile turning as Anna recedes into the distance. Then he pleads with Calloway to be dropped off. Martins gets out of the jeep and walks over to lean against a cart full of logs, while Anna grows larger out of the mid-avenue vanishing-point and the famous zither music swells....
"Is the finale of The Third Man the greatest in all cinema? I'd say (in this 'Greatest Films' issue) it must be a candidate, if only for its visual simplicity and the elegant way one kind of romanticism is trumped by another. For Martins is waiting for the boy-and-girl-find-solace-together ending. But after several seconds of anticipation, Anna walks on by, refusing even to acknowledge this traitor of her purer love."
THE THIRD MAN received an Oscar for Best Cinematography (Krasker) and was also nominated for Best Director and Editing (Oswald Hafenrichter).