In The Third Man—probably the greatest British thriller of the postwar era—director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene set a fable of moral corruption in a world of near-Byzantine visual complexity: the streets and ruins of occupied Vienna. It is a Vienna far removed from the rollicking erotics of Ernst Lubitsch or the wistful elegance and melancholy beauty of Max Ophüls. Decadence and rot have seeped into the city’s very soul, poisoned it, left almost nothing unstained. This Vienna is a movie milieu as densely evocative and haunting as Curtiz’s Casablanca or Sternberg’s Morocco—yet, unlike them, it is primarily the real Vienna, the real streets, the real rubble: shot by Reed and cameraman Robert Krasker in such a striking style (almost constant off-angle compositions and wide-angle lens distortions), that it takes on a patina of nightmare. Through this macabre landscape—over which Anton Karas’ legendary zither score jangles with ironic jauntiness—the tale unwinds. A naïve and foolishly romantic American novelist, Holly Martins (a specialist in Zane Grey-style westerns) pursues the murderers of his best friend, Harry Lime; spars with the cynical British police major, Calloway; hunts for the mysterious “third man” who witnessed Harry’s death; and falls hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Harry’s mistress, Anna. Finally, in two symbolic settings—a ferris wheel towering above the city, and the shadowy chaos of the sewers—Holly comes face to face with the supreme evil, the supreme betrayal: both Harry’s and his own.
The Third Man is one of those rare films that captured its audience immediately and was regarded as a classic almost from its first release. It marks one of those unusual conjunctions of script, director, subject, cast and setting—and, of course, music—in which everything works. Graham Greene’s script, based on his novel, is a brilliant evocation of the urban battleground of good and evil, with just the right proportions of drama, atmosphere, action, rich character and tense construction. The acting ensemble is superb, with the mixture of Americans and Europeans in the cast creating an ideal balance: Trevor Howard as the pragmatic and brutally unsparing Calloway; Bernard Lee as the gentle Sergeant Paine; Wilfred Hyde-White as Crabbin, the slightly addled literary entrepreneur; Ernst Deutsch as the sinister, ferrety “Baron” Kurtz; Alida Valli, exuding fatalistic romance as Anna; and those two refugees from Citizen Kane, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, as the two old friends torn asunder, the dark side and the light, Harry and Holly—their names so similar Anna often confuses them. Welles’ relatively brief performance as Harry Lime is perfection itself: the bemused, lightly condescending, affectionate look with which he greets Holly; the murderous fluency of his Machiavellian story of the cuckoo clock (which Welles himself wrote); or the wild desperation as he flounders in the sewer. This is magnificent, highly charged film acting.
Because the two great set pieces in The Third Man—the ferris wheel confrontation and the chase through the sewers—both revolve around Welles, and because they’re shot with the kind of weirdly angled grandiloquence and impudent virtuosity for which he’s noted, there’s been a temptation to believe that he directed them. Invaluable as Welles’ contributions and performance were, the directorial triumph is Reed’s. He is the hero, and dominating influence—insisting that it be shot in Vienna; insisting that Welles play Harry Lime over distributor David Selznick’s forceful nomination of Noel Coward; resisting Selznick’s usual indefatigable memos and attempted “Americanization” of the script; discovering Anton Karas and his zither in a tiny beer and sausage restaurant (“The Harry Lime Theme” became a major hit record of its day); and finally, rejecting even Graham Greene’s suggestion of a climatic rapprochement between Anna and Holly. (Ironically, there is a famous moment in Welles’ performance which is Reed’s too: Harry Lime’s hands, reaching desperately through the sewer grating, fingers flailing in the windy night air, actually belong to a stand-in—the director.)
Yet, perhaps Carol Reed took too seriously the suggestion that Welles’ hand lay somewhere in The Third Man. He never again caught the peculiar and vibrant visual stylization, the special “look” which makes this film and his earlier Odd Man Out such a stunning experience. (William Wyler, after watching the film, presented Reed with a spirit level, to place on his camera next time, forcibly preventing any angle shots.) This was the one time Reed, as a director, reached perfection; and he did it as much by assembling and marshalling a brilliantly talented company as by the power of his own vision. Together he and Greene—and Welles, Cotten, Howard, Valli, Karas, Krasker, Korda and all the others—created a portrait of postwar corruption and the death of idealism that has lodged ever since in our collective consciousness. Together, they made a rich, moody masterpiece of guilt, love, and ambivalent redemption.
Michael Wilmington is a film critic for the Chicago Tribune.