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The Third Man Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    The Third Man Review

    “Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don't know what you're mixing in. Get the next plane.”

    “As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I'll get the next plane.”

    “Death's at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”

    “Mind if I use that line in my next Western?”

    It would be hard to imagine a world without The Third Man's innate cinematic influence. Embedded so completely in the psyche of critics, filmmakers, fans and culture that its impact and resonance is felt even by those who may not have actually seen it, Carol Reed's magnificent 1949 mystery is one of a very select, incredibly rare breed of classic movie. Whilst it clearly stands alongside such inarguable examples of top ten list-breakers as Citizen Kane (also buoyed superbly by Orson Welles), North By Northwest, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers or Spartacus as a testament to the skills of writer, director, star and cinematographer combined, its evocative power and almost effortless ability to elicit pleasure, intrigue and all-round entertainment, and to do so no matter how many repeat viewings it undergoes, transforms it into one of the grand pillars of celluloid fable-making. Try as you might to determine the root cause for its undying fascination, The Third Man will almost always confound, often beckoning you down new avenues and showing you character-beats that had, previously, gone unnoticed. Much like its own plot, the film is a Pandora's Box of hidden treasures.

    But one of its secrets must surely be a refusal to play by the rules, or rather any of the usual rules that apply to crime dramas or mystery-thrillers.

    “Have you ever seen any of your victims?”

    “You know, 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?”

    On the face of it, the plot of The Third Man couldn't be much simpler. Pulp American author Holly Martins (an inspired Joseph Cotton) comes to postwar Vienna to meet his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who apparently has a job for him. But, no sooner has he arrived than he receives the shocking news that Harry has been killed in a car accident and that he is just about in-time to make it to the funeral. But things don't seem to add up for Holly who, courting the impatient and mocking wrath of the British military police, headed-up by the brilliant Trevor Howard's Calloway, smells a rat. Two people were seen to carry the body of his friend after the accident, but there is the tantalising suggestion that a mysterious third man was also present at the scene. Unable to leave things be, Holly begins some ill-advised detective work and uncovers evidence of his former friend's involvement in corruption and, chiefly, his smuggling of diluted penicillin on the black market. As if this doesn't leave a sour enough taste in his mouth, Holly also begins to believe that Harry Lime may not even be dead after all, and that a web of deceit has been drawn over circumstances to mask a much bigger picture. With shady characters all around him, the frosty suspicions incubated by Vienna's multi-national zones, Calloway constantly breathing down his neck - more for his own protection than anything else - and Harry's ex-lover, Anna (a drabbed-down Alida Valli) complicating things still further, the American abroad finds his stay in war-torn Vienna a strangely intoxicating and, ultimately, dangerous one.

    Of course, such a synopsis completely belies the wonderful texture, witty, razor-sharp dialogue and redolent atmosphere that swirls around The Third Man. Written by one of England's finest authors, the darkly cynical Graham (Our Man In Havana) Greene, and directed by one of her most perceptive auteurs, Carol Reed, the film was a ground-breaking collision of intimate British style and character and the rampaging, unreasoning machine of the Hollywood studio system. Part financed and string-pulled by the legendary producer David O. Selznick, the film could very easily have been a train wreck of gargantuan proportions. The very melding of these two wildly different film-making ethics could be likened to the chaos of the war that had just ended, especially given the nature of the transatlantic collaboration - like the allies themselves - forging their crusade on European soil, as it were. Selznick famously couldn't resist sticking his nose in. He didn't quite understand the story, its subtleties passing him by, and the relationship between himself and the stalwart Brits, Greene and Reed, would possibly have led to disaster had it not been for the calming presence of Sir Alexander Korda, who had been responsible for bringing the writing/directing partners together in the first place on the previous year's The Fallen Idol. Korda kept Selznick at bay and his trademark memos went blissfully ignored by the pair who languished in the freedom of Vienna's night-life, along with Guy (Diamonds Are Forever) Hamilton, who acted as associate director on the film, whilst they perfected the tale. Critics and film essayists love to find the seeds of Greene's plot. The Soviet double-agent Kim Philby is often mooted as a starting point for the tale of betrayal, deceit and clandestine subterfuge in a world that, having vanquished one enemy seems hell-bent on finding a replacement. But half of the fun of The Third Man is in looking at it with fresh eyes each time - and it is bewitching just how many facets and tangents you can discover. Nothing is ever as it seems and the skill of such writing is in layering character and nuance so calculatingly that turns of phrase, expressions and even the pauses in-between can be seen as having been imbued with a variety of spins, any one of which can be called upon depending on the mood of the viewer, let alone the characters, themselves, who, in Reed's capable hands, genuinely live and breathe.

    “I told you to go away, Martins. This isn't Santa Fe. I'm not a sheriff and you aren't a cowboy. You've been blundering around with the worst bunch of racketeers in Vienna, your precious Harry's friends, and now you're wanted for murder.”

    That Holly Martins is such a incredibly atypical hero is one of the ceaseless treasures of The Third Man. Whilst Hitchcock was busy making ordinary-Joes into unlikely adventurers or reluctant crime-solvers and the likes of Raoul Walsh and Billy Wilder had us siding with dark-hearted devils and love-rats in, respectively White Heat and Double Indemnity, Reed and Greene concocted an audience-conduit who was equally as fallible, equally as impulsive and equally as unlucky as the rest of us. Cary Grant was initially up for the part and the result, though obviously entertaining, wouldn't have been anywhere near as interesting. Joseph Cotton, as far as I am concerned, isn't one of the best actors of his era, but his pliable face, American pugnaciousness, almost annoying doggedness and grating charm transform Holly Martins into one of the movies' greatest heroic blunderers. Whether drunk, falling over, getting punched or simply belittled, Cotton's hangdog interloper is, nevertheless, our eyes and ears in this confused moral minefield. Does he actually fall for Valli's vulnerable Anna, or is it just that he sees in her perhaps the only other person in Vienna who believes there may still be some shred of worth in the vilified Harry Lime? Together, they form an odd, disenfranchised pair of crusaders.

    Greene excels at pitching an arrogant and quite bull-headed Yank into the thick of circumstances that he doesn't fully (or even partially) understand, but this isn't merely the case of an educated Englishman mocking his colonial cousins. Earlier, this character would actually have been the province of just such a pompous Englishman treading on toes and having to keep his upper lip stiff in the face of adversity, but Greene is much more astute and observant than pandering to stereotypes. The Third Man pokes as much fun at the dwindling days of Empire, eccentricity, dogma and regimented propaganda as it does American interventionism, its culture-shock triumvirate - an American tangling with British autocracy in Vienna - means that no-one in this set-up comes out smelling of roses or, for that matter, ever does entirely the right thing for any of the right reasons. Holly Martins is no Richard Hannay, that's for sure - and if any good is going to come of his unofficial snooping, it will be probably be down to Calloway picking up the pieces afterwards and trying to smooth things over for himself. A great little ongoing association is that found between Holly and Calloway's thoroughly decent subordinate, Sgt. Paine, played by a young Bernard (Bond's M) Lee. Paine knows of Holly's books, junk Westerns that he can “pick up” and “put down” any time and although his relationship with the American is mixed with both awe and respect for his artistic qualities, he takes a fair amount of sardonic pleasure at watching this “fish-out-of-water” squirming through the coils of a system that he can't fathom. And then there is the great Wilfred Hyde-White who, as Crabbins, is something of a last bastion of arts appreciation trying to reinvigorate culture amongst the dispossessed of the Vienna shambles. Replying magnificently to Sgt. Paine's glib remark about the last show he enjoyed actually being “Hindu Dancers” and not strictly a striptease is a nice forerunner to his politely doomed etiquette when Martins makes a hash of a literary talk for society members later on. It is just another meticulously thought out component in a machine so intricately designed that you almost hope for a flaw, any flaw, to pop up just to reassure you that its makers are as human as we are.

    “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we?”

    Like an ogre, Welles looms up from the underworld, his invisible grasp on the denizens of Vienna and especially upon poor Holly stifling everything that happens in the drama. Famously in the film for only a matter of minutes, yet smothering it so completely that you'd swear he was lurking in the corner of every single frame, the notoriously difficult actor gives an indelible and genre-bashing performance as the grave-returnee with a diabolical philosophy. The Ferris Wheel sequence has justifiably gone down in history as one of cinema's most potent and breath-snatching exchanges and the ripeness of the dialogue, which Welles like to claim owed much to his own improvisation, is a scathing dissection of cut 'n' thrust opportunism and a vicious, glowering look ahead to the Greed is Good moral abyss of the eighties. This, of course, is unusual in a thriller. The black and white of a situation is, more often than not, very clear-cut. With betrayal, deceit and danger rising and descending around Holly Martins, much like the symbolic Ferris Wheel itself, Lime's sinister ethics become a uniquely understandable proposition given that the world around him has just sanctioned indiscriminate murder on the grandest scale imaginable during the war. Intriguingly, the higher the Wheel takes them to the Heavens, the darker and more despicable Lime becomes. Yet once we come back down to Earth, his beguiling charm returns, somehow reversing the elemental positions of good and evil. Earlier on, we have been informed by his landlord when he tells Martins of the tragic accident, that his friend could be on his way “up” or “down”. Thus, destinies are, at best, inverted with Vienna, herself, acting as the gateway through which everybody, not just the embittered school friends, must pass. To this end, Lime's moral stance is no less valid than Holly's who, paradoxically, seems to be just as self-centred in his quest as his nemesis. That the pair had worked previously on the juggernaut that was Citizen Kane reveals the chemistry between Welles and Cotton was so immutable that even their paltry screen-time together in The Third Man could not diminish its power. Cotton, obligingly, always seems to be aware of someone loitering over his shoulder and this only adds to impression that Welles, ever watchful, is present in most scenes.

    “Oh, Holly, you and I aren't heroes. The world doesn't make any heroes outside of your stories.”

    Reed shows real verve during the tense climactic chase and it is here, with a strikingly shot set-piece down in those famed sewers, that The Third Man most resembles the classic noir thriller that it has spent so much of its time marvellously turning on its head. Shadows and faces, glimmers of light that can symbolise either salvation or damnation, and true panic in the eyes of a rat so completely caught in his own trap that you almost wish that you, yourself, could extricate him - it is a wonderfully paranoid and exciting denouement to a film that pretends to explain much, yet really, as in all the best and most intelligent scripts, leaves so much open to your own interpretation that questionable morals, and the traditional themes of right and wrong are thrown to the wind. With no-one to really root for in the story - everyone exists in the murk of lost ideals, chance and amorality - there is a strange comfort to the lack of happiness at the outcome. Although there have been far bleaker endings, there is a welcome cruelness that caps The Third Man, locking its captivating power struggle behind cynical bars, that supplies a completely poetic satisfaction. Ironically, it was Greene who wanted to pen the ending differently and in a more conventional Hollywood manner but, luckily, Reed persuaded him otherwise.

    “One of those bad days ...”

    All this is set to the eloquent, jaunty, yet vaguely sinister strains of Anton Karas' inimitable zither, the ethnic instrument that marks the film out with a kind of medieval jester serenade, as if the thing is winking mischievously at us the whole time. The Third Man performs wonders of script-to-screen translation. Greene's inordinately clever screenplay is allowed not only room to breathe, but never once condescends to the viewer either. Very much a novelty era when viewed today - set neither amidst the greater saga of the war, itself, nor during the prosperous, hopeful years that followed - the shadowy depiction of postwar Vienna may as well be some dreamland of fantastical architecture, a hinter-world of deeds and machinations that belong only in such a fractured, dislocated place as one that has been on the brink of oblivion and now basks in its own stately decay. America had its detective noirs - scheming dames and hardbitten private dicks - but Europe's rich aesthetic provided a tumultuous and unsettling locale as far removed from the sun and shade of the City Of Angels as you could get. The world of The Third Man is one that is no less dangerous, but there is a sort of understandable desperation about it that makes its movers and shakers an altogether different proposition from the hoods, hit-men, corrupt cops and gangsters in LA. But Vienna is like a carcass that is being picked-clean by a thousand scavengers from a thousand different nations, all eager to plunder what once shone, but now lies scattered and broken. Much like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, this is such a den of inequity and deceit that to move through it and survive is to become it. Howard's military rozzer understands exactly what the city has been transformed into and acts accordingly, with a combination of wariness and pity for its pitiless condition. Harry Lime allows himself to be swallowed whole by it - both metaphorically and literally. But Martins is the unwitting swimmer venturing out into ever-deeper water. The more he tastes of it, the more he confident he gets - and the more hopelessly out of his depth he becomes. It is a delicious way of tackling what is, or was, a profoundly and thematically rich environment, the three men prowling in ever-decreasing circles through a place and a time that is changing more and more with every step that they take. Although the Cold War was yet to spread its icy fingers around the world, there is a chilly air of almost unanimous distrust between all the parties that have carved Vienna up. But this is still an attractive no-man's land that trades sirens and curfews for high art, withering put-downs and that endless zither-jangled atmosphere of languid rogues and of a jaded theatricality that carries on despite being well past its sell-by date.

    “You were born to be murdered.”

    Although it takes its influence undoubtedly from the noir imagery of Fritz Lang, Karl Freund and German Expressionism, The Third Man practically reinvents the look and creates its own visual legacy. Robert Krasker's incredible off-kilter camera-angles and the fabulous use of light and shadow make for constantly fascinating frames, and deep-focus photography ensures that the setting - cobbled streets, hollowed-out buildings and towers of rubble on the one hand, and hotel suites, police/military offices and theatres on the other - become entrancing and full of baroque mystique. There is realism here - the paraphernalia of Calloway's den, the accoutrements of Harry's room - but Reed guarantees that his setting flits somewhere in-between reality and the fantastic. Although bereft of his pulsating colour, the film often strikes me as Argento-esque in the way that it allows the buildings and the streets to take on a life of their own, their size intimidating and their geometry vaguely uncomfortable. But what is most arresting is the way that Krasker paints pictures on the walls during the classic sewer chase, the characters' shadows becoming almost animated effigies in crooked flight. It should come as no surprise that Krasker scooped the Oscar for his cinematography for The Third Man, but his innovative style still looks audacious and vastly inventive even today. As a sidenote, I love those old triangular segmented man-hole covers - they remind me of the music-box at the start of the vintage TV show, Camberwick Green!

    Sixty years down the line, the film is a text-book example of the form. Without it, we possibly wouldn't have had the likes of Martin Scorsese, who cherished the movie and its distinctive visual style, narrative structure and, perhaps most tellingly of all, the endless appeal of its roster of charismatic ne'er-do-wells. It is rare that so many elements of a movie come together so well, even rarer that they come together to perfection. The Third Man is one of the all-time greats and, whether crime is your chosen genre or not, it deserves a lofty place in any film collection.

    Unusual, spellbinding and endlessly re-watchable.