However hoked-up and self-regarding, The Third Man, rereleased this week in a fully restored version on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, remains an indelible experience. Carol Reed’s arty thriller, written by Graham Greene, is set in the broken heart of Europe—an uncanny Vienna populated by a multinational assortment of rogues and fools. The movie is a fun-house Casablanca, its jaundiced geopolitical romance appropriate to the bleary dawn of the Cold War.
Although predicated on mass murder and framed by two funerals (both for the same character), The Third Man is very much a jape—a sardonic waltz set to the mocking gaiety of its infectious zither theme. Too comic to be noir, the movie is nevertheless extravagantly expressionistic in its extreme angles, zigzag lighting schemes, and fondness for gargoyle faces in mega close-up. The compositions are insistently off-
kilter—as Manny Farber wrote in his New Republic review, the “tilted camera that leaves you feeling you have [been watching] from a fetal position.”
Rapturously received in its day, The Third Man won the Palme d’Or at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, opening here the following February with “awesome hooplah,” according to The New York Times. Time hailed Reed as a new Hitchcock and, no less than the movie itself, Anton Karas’s catchy theme became an international hit. (“He’ll have you in a dither with his zither,” the American trailer promised.) The Third Man caught a mood, but then it was conceived as a topical movie.
The possibility of a new war in Europe seemed real enough. After the February 1948 coup that brought the Communists to power in Czechoslovakia, British producer Alexander Korda dispatched Greene to Vienna to write a scenario for Reed on the city’s four-power occupation. Although it was the similarly “internationalized” Berlin that made news that summer when Stalin blockaded the city, divided Vienna provides an appropriately duplicitous backdrop for the befuddlement of American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), invited to town at the behest of his shady old friend, Harry Lime.
Reporting from Vienna in 1948, John Gunther thought the city—where “every other building [was] destroyed”—resembled “an empty broken stage set.” And so it proves for Martins, who arrives to discover that his school chum has been run over by a truck and killed not 10 minutes earlier. Ruined capital of a lost empire, experiment in urban modernism, city of Sigmund Freud and the young Adolf Hitler, Vienna is here a labyrinth of deserted cobblestone alleys, empty squares, and
rubble-strewn lots. (In its semidocumentary quality, The Third Man belongs with Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thief and Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus as a snapshot of Europe after the rain.) Yet however desolate its landscape, Vienna was filled with smugglers, secret agents, and East European refugees, many to be arrested and repatriated by the Soviet military police.
Much of The Third Man bobs along on such free-floating intrigue. Everyone has their eye on Martins, particularly the supercilious British major (Trevor Howard) who has been investigating Harry Lime and to whom the ineffectually antiauthoritarian American takes an immediate dislike. Martins is continually told to go home while the absurd, sinister atmosphere of operetta cloak-and-dagger is amplified by extended passages of untranslated German, as well as Martins’s unrequited yearning for the sad, vulnerable Anna (Italian star Alida Valli, originally billed as simply Valli), an actress who was Harry’s lover.
The naive and confused author of Western novels, Martins is, of course, an unsympathetic caricature of America itself. (The idea of the innocent Yank floundering out of his depth in postwar Europe was revisited by Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa.) Martins not only develops a conspiracy theory of Lime’s demise but begins to believe himself living inside one of his own sagebrush sagas. A figure of ridicule, he is blamed for a murder, followed in the street, hijacked by a cab driver, and repeatedly rebuffed by Anna (who can never remember his name). Such are the burdens of world leadership.
No less than its location, The Third Man is divided terrain. Although essentially British, the movie was just last year appropriated by the American Film Institute as Hollywood’s 57th greatest effort. A NATO production made before NATO existed, The Third Man is also (like Casablanca) a film of multiple authors. If the package was assembled by Alexander Korda, his American partner David Selznick was largely responsible for the casting.
The movie’s internal politics were also complicated. French historian Marc Ferro has demonstrated how Carol Reed reworked Graham Greene’s script to create a political allegory—pro-British, anti-Soviet, and critical of the U.S.A. Reed added the sequences emphasizing the deadly result of Lime’s black-marketeering, reconfigured the dynamics of the crucial café ambush, and changed the famous final shot—thus irritating Greene by depriving the movie of its conventional happy ending. Reed also made Holly Martins a weaker character and Anna a stronger one—improving her politics by making her a refugee from Red Czechoslovakia rather than the daughter of a Hungarian Nazi.
Capping its precursors Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, The Third Man is certainly Reed’s most impressive movie and yet, as Ferro points out in Cinema and History, it was stolen out from under him. Two-thirds of the way through, the character who has been the subject of virtually every conversation and the object of almost all desires suddenly—finally!—appears. The cat finds its master. Conjured out of the night by the drunkenly shouting Martins and illuminated by a sudden (impossible) shaft of light, it’s Harry Lime smirking in a building doorway.
Or perhaps we should say Orson Welles. Appearing without makeup, Welles makes one of the most dramatic star entrances in the history of movies. From that moment, The Third Man belongs to him. Disrupting Reed’s schema by transforming the villain into an ambiguously charismatic figure, Welles rewrote his dialogue and largely directed his performance, most effectively in the scene where Lime meets Martins at the foot of the Ferris wheel in the
empty Prater amusement park. Reed had already adopted a Welles-inflected expressionism for Odd Man Out. But it was due to Welles’s elaboration of what might have been just a cameo that Reed extended The Third Man‘s underground sequences and added an additional chase (including the shot, credit taken by Welles, where Lime’s fingers flutter through the sewer grate).
Harry Lime turned out to be Welles’s most celebrated movie performance after Charles Foster Kane. Indeed, the ruthless Lime is an alternative Kane—similarly worshiped and betrayed by Joseph Cotten. André Bazin would suggest that this role made Welles into a myth. Certainly, The Third Man provided Welles with his last radio persona—in the early ’50s he starred in a BBC series based on the movie—and his most romantic embodiment. Not for nothing is The Third Man theme echoed by the player piano in Touch of Evil.
Holly Martins may not have been a viable metaphor for America. But, in his mixture of overripe charm and Übermensch rhetoric, heedless cynicism and doomed megalomania, Welles’s Harry Lime was both the dark spirit of a haunted metropolis and the shadow of the actor’s future self.