sat 15/06/2024

The second coming of The Third Man | reviews, news & interviews

The second coming of The Third Man

The second coming of The Third Man

Vienna, the zither, a twist of Lime: Carol Reed's newly restored noir masterpiece returns

The trouble with Harry: Orson Welles in 'The Third Man'Studio Canal

What happened to Harry Lime during the war that he slid into iniquity, or was he always a swine? What cracked in him so badly that he sold diluted penicillin that gave children meningitis? What rat-like instincts of survival prompted him to betray his Czech lover so that the Russians would evict her from Austria? And why did he summon the hapless Holly Martins from America to join his racket?

Was it that he could rely on Holly to be dazzled and dominated by him, as he must have been 20 years before at school?

These and other questions – comprising the mystery within the mystery – are left unanswered by The Third Man, the 1949 proto-Cold War thriller, written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, which no one disputes is British cinema’s greatest film noir. It may be the greatest British movie of all if one is prepared to set aside Powell and Pressburger’s stream of masterpieces, Lean’s Dickens films, and the likes of If…, Kes, and Don’t Look Now. The new 4k restoration, which opens in cinemas this week after yesterday's UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, should lure a new generation of viewers, if they’re open to such sinister beguilement, into the dark shadows and sheeny streets of nocturnal Vienna. It may ask why an ineffable charmer who has succumbed to demonism is more irresistible to both women and men than a virtuous fool or a Monty-like officer.

In that order, we have Orson Welles’s Harry, Joseph Cotten’s Holly, and Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway – not that Holly is so virtuous. A hard-up writer of pulp Westerns, he has arrived in Vienna because Harry has offered him a job doing he knows not what. He arrives just in time to learn his old friend has been knocked down and killed by a car, and to see him being buried in a cemetery outside the city. Among the mourners are “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Dr Winkel (Erich Ponto), Harry’s baleful-looking cohorts, and Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), his grieving but self-contained mistress. Calloway (Trevor Howard), the military policeman who had been monitoring Lime for the British zone of the post-war quartered city, looks preoccupied but is drinking in everything; his shiny leather coat is poor camouflage (pictured above, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard).

Afterwards, Calloway gives Holly a lift back to Vienna and buys him a drink. He tells him Harry was the dirtiest kind of racketeer. Holly assaults him and, for his trouble, is slugged, not too hard, by Calloway’s doughty sergeant (Bernard Lee), a fan of Holly’s books. Holly decides to stay to clear Harry’s name. Mistaking him for a serious American author, the British cultural re-education officer Crabbin (Wilfred Hyde-White), twinkling with fake bonhomie, says he’ll pay for Holly’s board if he’ll give a lecture on the modern novel at his institute. The next day, the oily Kurtz inadvertently alerts Holly to discrepancies in the different accounts of Harry’s fatal accident (pictured below, Alida Valli).

Having stumbled into Vienna in the first place, he now stumbles into detective work. He interviews and befriends Anna, the supercilious Winkel, and a worldly Romanian scoundrel, Popescu (Siegried Breur), who tries to throw him off the scent. You sense that Kurtz, Winkel, and Popescu (so brilliantly portrayed in fragments), and perhaps the missing hospital worker of the film’s title, conspired with Harry not to survive the aftermath of the war, but from a deluded sense of Old World entitlement, so as not to relinquish their comforts and luxuries – Kurtz’s little dog, Winkel’s antiques, Popescu’s lounge lizard lifestyle.

A “witness” dies, Harry’s coffin is disinterred. He’s not in it. Anna’s cat sidles up to Harry’s brogues as he stands in a doorway on the street opposite her apartment at night, a light falls on his face – though wholly predictable, Welles’s iconic entrance, late into the picture, is even more shocking than Gene Tierney’s return in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Harry and Holly’s subsequent charged conversation atop and below the Prater ferris wheel on Leopoldstadt ends with Harry’s bland Kierkegaardian explanation of why more was accomplished culturally by Italy under the Borgias than by the supposedly peaceful Swiss in half a millennium (see clip below). Welles wrote the speech and Reed and Greene must have liked it, but as a specious justification of evil, it does suggest Harry let his principles slip during the Nazi era. The film climaxes with Harry’s flight in the cavernous Vienna sewers (pictured below).

Robert Krasker, The Third Man’s Australian cinematographer, had turned the Belfast of Odd Man Out (1947), Reed’s previous film, into a phantasmagoria, the skewed vision of James Mason’s hunted, wounded IRA robber. He took a less Expressionist approach to Vienna, but he frequently tilted, or canted, the camera as a simple way of showing that this was a world off-balance (pictured below) in which the truths Holly seeks prove elusive. Reed’s masterstroke, though, was his use, at the expense of all other music on the soundtrack, of Anton Karas’s zither. It’s sometimes plaintive, but when zesty or spiky it places a barrier, in lieu of the irony impacted in Greene’s prose, between an optimistic viewer’s desire to sentimentalise Holly and Harry and their moral failings.

At the cemetery, Holly was immediately entranced by the Garbo-like Anna; she becomes aware of his presence slightly behind her, to her left, like one becomes aware of a fly one can’t be bothered to flick off. He is setting himself a trap. He soon learns of her unshakeable love for his more powerful friend but remains emotionally blind to it; not even Harry’s two deaths in the film, the second of which fulfils Holly’s destiny as the Oedipal son, can make her love the would-be usurper. In fact, Holly unconsciously does everything in his power to make her hate him.

As for her refusal to cooperate with Calloway or leave Vienna as Holly wants her to, it is not an ethical choice but a selfish adherence to the memory of her and Harry’s passion. The Third Man scholar Rob White has noted that in Greene’s novella she says, “Why, when I have a sex dream, he’s always the man.” That couldn’t be said by her or anyone else in a 1949 British film, but watch how at home Anna is in Harry’s apartment or wearing his monogrammed dressing gown. A woman never lets that one lover go. Greene hints that Holly and Anna may have a future in the book and wanted the film to follow suit, but he was glad to be proved wrong by the ending Reed chose – one that, once seen, is never forgotten.

  • The Third Man opens on Friday 26 June at five cinemas in London and venues in Cambridge, Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, and Sheffield.


 Overleaf, browse a gallery of restored images from The Third Man


Click on the thumbnail images to enlarge


Reed’s masterstroke was his use, at the expense of all other music on the soundtrack, of Anton Karas’s zither


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Two things: Graham Greene's screenplay is not given enough credit, and Orson Welles is given too much. Also, not only those Powell, etc., films, but there is one Hitchcock who has to be contended with. The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are still very fresh, a breed of suspense and screwball comedy that remains fresh. Then there are those Ealing comedies, especially Kind Hearts & Coronets and The Ladykillers. And the early Sean Connery James Bond films are also unique.

"The Third Man" has been one of my favourite films for many years. Intrigue, mystery and humour... without the usual Hollywood insert of excessive drugs, sex and violence. A wonderful story that was superbly filmed.

After 40 years this remains my favourite film. It is a happy collision of the best screenwriting, acting and cinematography you will experience, made unique by its setting in a kind of limbo in the form of still heavily damaged, largely night-time Vienna. It could not possibly be re-made and no-one has tried. Then you have THAT music, THOSE key scenes and the magnificent economy of it all; not one minute too long or short. And if you do not shed a tear during the unforgettable final tracking shot, you are not human.

"Harry never grew up, he was always a child; it was the world which grew up around him", or words to that effect. Those words explain why, on the Big Wheel (the governments talk of the masses, the proletariat, I talk of the suckers, it's the same thing"), Harry with his sad smile draws a heart on the window and puts the word Anna inside it, then taps on the symbol to draw attention to what he's just done.

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