The Third Man (1949)

It’s the two-year anniversary of The Horse’s Head! I’m celebrating with a classic film that, despite being ineligible for the National Film Registry, has somehow made it on to various American Film Institute Top 100 lists. And it’s appropriate that a film with this mystery hanging over it should itself be one of the best mysteries ever made. 

Oh, and spoilers ahead.

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The Third Man (1949)

OR “I’m Just Wild About Harry”

Directed by Carol Reed

Written by Graham Greene. Based on his novella.

The Plot: American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Allied-occupied Vienna to meet childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) for a job. No sooner does he arrive that Holly learns Harry has been killed in a car accident. Disappointed with the response of British Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), Holly decides to investigate Harry’s death himself. He meets Harry’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and several other associates, all of whom have differing accounts of Harry’s death. The official version has Harry’s body being carried away by two friends, but once Holly learns that there was an unidentified third man at the scene, the mystery begins to unravel. Come for the international intrigue, stay for the zither music.

The mystery of “The Third Man” is so wonderfully atmospheric that I genuinely didn’t know where the film was going. Greene creates an endlessly fascinating mystery, and Carol Reed (along with cinematographer Robert Krasker) adds additional layers that result in a dizzying viewing experience. This attention to detail makes the film endlessly re-watchable, and therefore destined to endure. “The Third Man” is definitely more British than American, but unquestionably a classic.

Everybody Gets One (Even If They’re Not On The List): Carol Reed started in film as a second-unit director for Associated Talking Pictures (now Ealing Studios). One of Reed’s earliest fans was then-film critic/future legendary novelist Grahame Greene, with whom Reed collaborated with on 1948’s “The Fallen Idol”. The film was a hit, and producer Alexander Korda immediately put them to work on what would eventually become “The Third Man”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Academy members were fans of “The Fallen Idol”, and nominated “The Third Man” for three Oscars at the 1951 ceremony. Carol Reed lost Best Director to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for “All About Eve”, while the Editing prize went to “King Solomon’s Mines”, but “Third Man” took home Best Cinematography for Robert Krasker, the first Australian to win in that category. Surprisingly, Anton Karas’ zither score didn’t make the cut.

Other notes

  • A quick word on the nationality of “The Third Man”: It’s a British film, made by a British company, directed and written by Brits. The AFI’s qualifier is that one of the producers was American David O. Selznick, who was responsible for the casting of Cotten and Welles. The NFR will usually give a pass to a movie if an American studio was a co-producer (see David Lean’s entries), but even by that standard, this would be a stretch. Nice try, AFI, but we can’t claim this one.
  • That’s Carol Reed in a voiceover as perhaps filmdom’s most unreliable narrator. Not only does he never show up again, he’s not even in every version of the movie (Joseph Cotten re-recorded the narration for the American release).
  • The zither is an interesting choice for the score. I’m not sure it works for the more dramatic moments, but overall its jauntiness is an excellent counterpoint to the film’s darkness.
  • In addition to the score, Krasker’s cinematography aids in the film’s overall disorienting feeling. Many of the dialogue scenes are filmed with Dutch angles, leaving everything off-center and tilted. Amazingly, it’s never too distracting from the story. Well done Krasker.
  • Pickering! M! This film is a plethora of British character actors!
  • Maybe it’s just the international setting, but Joseph Cotten seems even more American than usual in this film.
  • Alida Valli was cast as Anna at the insistence of Selznick, who thought he had found the next Ingrid Bergman. Valli left Selznick’s domineering grasp shortly after “The Third Man”, and was a successful film star in her native Italy.
  • If nothing else, this film should be all the encouragement you need to learn a second language. How much easier would Martins’ life had been if he spoke German?
  • And then arrives Orson Welles, and one of the best damn introductions in any movie. Welles’ Harry immediately takes over the film – as if he was the main character this whole time – and Welles’ star power carries the limited role’s dramatic weight with ease.
  • The scene on board the Wiener Riesenrad is iconic I’ll grant you that, but for the record, Ferris wheels are the worst.
  • As the Swiss are quick to point out, cuckoo clocks aren’t from Switzerland, but rather the Black Forest of southern Germany. Oh well, it’s still a great speech, and words with k’s are funny.
  • This is another movie that would not hold up well if everyone had cell phones and internet access.
  • The climactic chase through the sewers is wonderfully suspenseful, and makes me glad that smellovision isn’t a thing anymore.
  • The final shot takes its time, but is worth the wait. Graham Greene objected to Carol Reed altering the novella’s ending, but he relented, and eventually agreed that Reed’s decision was “triumphantly right”.

Legacy

  • “The Third Man” was the biggest film of the year in England and a success in the United States as well. Unsurprisingly, Austria didn’t care much for a foreign film that portrays Vienna as a war-torn underworld run by racketeers.
  • Just a reminder that Carol Reed, the director of “The Third Man”, directed “Oliver!”. And he won an Oscar for that, and not “The Third Man”.
  • Relative unknown Anton Karas became a superstar thanks to “The Third Man”, and his “Third Man Theme” became a chart-topper in both England and America.
  • Orson Welles reprised the role of Harry Lime on the radio drama “The Adventures of Harry Lime”. Both this and the subsequent “Third Man” TV series starring Michael Rennie served as prequels to the film.
  • Incidentally, Welles used his “Third Man” paycheck to help finance his film adaptation of “Othello”.
  • “Pinky and the Brain” put Maurice LaMarche’s go-to Orson Welles impression to work in their parody “The Third Mouse”.
  • And of course the film’s greatest cultural impact: Harry Lime is the namesake of Joe Pesci’s character in “Home Alone”.

 

Two years, over 300 movies, and I’m not even halfway through yet! Here’s to Year Three.

Happy Viewing,

Tony

Further Listening: Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!

3 thoughts on “The Third Man (1949)”

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