The Third Man (1949)


*. Years ago I remember reading an essay describing The Third Man as a perfect film. There were other films that the author (I can’t remember who it was now) considered to be greater, or ones he liked more, but The Third Man was perfect.
*. Arguments can be had over the meaning of perfection in the arts. I suppose for a film it might be defined as a level of excellence in all departments, a wholeness that allows no slackness in the pace, no holes in the plot, no missteps in the script or slightly off performances.
*. With that in mind, I was taken by something Peter Bogdanovich says in his video introduction to the Criterion DVD, when he calls The Third Man perhaps the greatest non-auteur movie ever made.


*. Calling it a non-auteur movie seems an indirect way of implying that Reed wasn’t that important. I don’t think Bogdanovich means that, but over the years it’s been a common subtext, even down to crediting Welles with some of the direction. This is incorrect (Welles doesn’t seem to have been very helpful on set), but at the same time I can understand where it’s coming from. Reed never did anything else nearly as good. Odd Man Out has recently been getting a lot of praise (the Criterion effect), but it’s not in the same league as this film.
*. When one thinks of the usual suspects at the top of the list for “greatest movie ever made” — Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Vertigo, Tokyo Story — one gets a sense of where Bogdanovich is coming from. One also understands a bit more why Carol Reed’s role in the success of The Third Man has always been unfairly downplayed. What people say is that he had a lot of help.
*. So there was the music, which came from a zither player Reed discovered working in a Vienna wine cellar. And there was the location: post-war Vienna, which was a place we’d never see again. And the script by Graham Greene: cynical, sly, and open to improvisation. And the photography by Robert Krasker, as expressionist as noir could get. And Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli and Trevor Howard and Orson Welles and a cast of worn European faces. They all did their thing.


*. Any great movie is, as Bogdanovich also registers, a kind of happy accident. Things have to come together. And in The Third Man they did, in a magical way. Keeping in mind that idea of perfection, note Roger Ebert’s use of superlatives: “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man“?” “Vienna in The Third Man is a more particular and unmistakable place than almost any other location in the history of the movies; the action fits the city like a hand slipping on a glove.” “As for Harry Lime: He allows Orson Welles to make the most famous entrance in the history of the movies, and one of the most famous speeches.” “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”


*. The parts all fit together seamlessly and nothing is out of place. It’s a quality that I think nearly everyone who has ever written on this movie has made some mention of. Luc Sante, for example: “The Third Man is in fact a brilliant succession of dice throws, a borderline counterintuitive combination of disparate elements that somehow come together as if they had been destined to do so.” Aside from Casablanca, a film to which it is often compared, there are few other movies that make this impression so strongly, despite it being (as noted) a quality shared by most of the best.


*. This isn’t to say that if any one piece had been changed then the whole would have been ruined. Originally Cary Grant and Noel Coward had been suggested for Harry Lime. I think they would have been very good, but Cotten and Welles work so well together, probably because they were friends in real life. Another happy accident, as Welles was a particularly hard sell (Selznick thought he was box office poison).
*. Does the film ever explain why Lime want Martins to come to Vienna anyway? Martins mentions “some sort of job” which seems to involve his writing ad copy for Lime (“He wanted me to write for his great medical charity?”). How would this work when Lime was a racketeer? Why would such a man need a publicist?


*. Feeling the hate for Holly Martins, and this just from the various Criterion commentaries and essays. Dana Polan: Martins is “a small, little man. A failure. . . . He’s a buffoon from beginning to end.” Philip Kerr: “Make no mistake about it, Holly Martins may be the hero of the movie, but he is also, very definitely a fool.” Tony Gilroy: “he’s just a shabby character all around . . . he’s just a slug.”
*. Isn’t this being too harsh? Yes, Holly is out of his depth, an American innocent abroad (as the critics never tire of identifying him) with the added disadvantage of not knowing the language, but I think he does very well as a detective considering all the obstacles he has to overcome. And while he strikes out with Anna, is that his fault? She’s crazy, throwing her life away for an evil psychopath who doesn’t care at all for her.


*. Then there’s Welles as Harry Lime. Someone missing. A big small part. But a great villain doesn’t have to have a lot of screen time or a lot of lines. They are a presence. Christopher Lee’s Dracula scarcely said anything, but he looked great in a cape. Anthony Hopkins was only on screen for around fifteen minutes in The Silence of the Lambs. So what if Harry Lime only has one scene with any dialogue, which comes in under five minutes? It’s all he needs.
*. Though even when he doesn’t have any lines Welles is still great. What does that smirk in the doorway mean? And has any actor ever seemed so desperate and hunted in a chase scene?


*. What makes him such a great villain? Charm. It’s hard to think of Harry as a bad guy, what with that cherubic face, almost as cute in its way as the “devious imp” (as Ebert dubs him), the son of the hotel porter.


*. Alida Valli never went on to do much. I think the only other thing I’ve seen her in is Argento’s Suspiria (she plays Miss Tanner). I don’t know why. She’s terrific here. But . . . this movie was such a one-off for so many people.
*. It might have been a Hitchcock film. James Stewart and Cary Grant were both considered and Valli had been earlier cast by Hitch in The Paradine Case (1947). Originally Crabbin was to be two characters played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, but I’m glad Charters and Caldicott didn’t show up, they don’t belong here. Meanwhile, the whole sequence where the child points out Holly as a murderer and he’s pursued by a mob, only to “escape” into the public lecture is as Hitchcockian as it gets.


*. But it isn’t a Hitchcock movie. Not at all. It’s interested in the various people we meet and it’s a “well-made plot” where the pieces fit together. Hitchcock wasn’t that interested in his characters and would have made the story of Lime’s black market activities just a throwaway bit of plotting to string the big sequences on. Reed wants to tell a story, and one that maintains coherence and plausibility.
*. I wonder what Hitchcock thought of this film. I haven’t been able to find any comments by him on it.
*. If all you can place him as is James Bond’s boss M, it’s amazing to see how big Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine) was, isn’t it? Did he ever get out from behind that desk in the Bond films?


*. Heaven and hell in Vienna. High and low, up and down are visual motifs throughout. The porter’s confusion of the direction of heaven and hell was apparently an inspired improvisation. The ferris wheel is a perfect symbol: the wheel of fortune and moral escalator. Characters are always looking down from windows at the ordinary people, those insignificant dots, on the street. Grand architecture rises out of piles of rubble. Beneath it all, the sewer, Harry’s underworld home. I love how the grates pull up like theatrical flames.
*. There’s also something devilish in the low-life types. Kurtz in particular seems like he’s about to sprout horns. And that child Ebert refers to as an imp is another devil figure, all the more so for being so damn cute. There’s something evil in such cuteness. Welles’s pudgy face falls into the same category. A very well-fed American devil he is.


*. When Martin Scorsese wrote a paper on this film as a student his teacher referred to it (the movie) as “just a thriller.” Bosley Crowther’s contemporary review in the New York Times struck the same note: “For the simple fact is that The Third Man, for all the awesome hoopla it has received, is essentially a first-rate contrivance in the way of melodrama — and that’s all.” I think being this dismissive is a mistake, but at the same time is there some hint here as to why this movie, while universally acknowledged as great, rarely appears at the top of a lot of “great movie” lists? It was voted the greatest British film by the British Film Institute, but I’m not sure how to take that. Trainspotting came in at number 10 on the same list. Meanwhile, in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll it didn’t even rate in the top 50.


*. I think it’s a great movie, but it doesn’t quite make my short list of personal favourites. This despite the fact that I do think it’s perfect, or as near to perfect as it could be.
*. If I had to explain why I don’t rate it higher I guess I’d just say that it doesn’t have the kind of emotional impact on me that my favourite films have.
*. Perhaps I can put it this way: Where is this movie’s heart? I said earlier that Harry is a psychopath, someone who has no empathy. He just sees other people, even Holly and Anna, as tools or sources of profit. Anna, I have to say, is someone I don’t get. I’ve called her crazy, and I’ll stick with that label. She used to love Harry but says she doesn’t any more. I think she’s lying to herself (she even still wears his monogrammed pyjamas to bed!), but perhaps she’s only sticking with him out of some dog-like sense of loyalty. Trevor Howard goes through the entire film without showing any emotion at all. Does he care about Harry’s victims, or are they just a way to hook Holly and get his cooperation? I think he’s only the consummate, albeit tired, professional.
*. And finally there’s Holly. What does he care about? Anna?
*. Anna walking past Holly is a great ending, but does it mean anything? If she had stopped, or even turned to look at him, what would they have said to each other? Holly had already confessed to Calloway that he only wants to see her again as a kind of duty. He can’t just leave. But doesn’t that make her final walk just a formality? I can’t feel anything in it. They’ve already gone their separate ways.


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