The Third Man

UK/USA 1949, 105 mins
Director: Carol Reed

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

It is hard now to credit that there was a time when Carol Reed was seriously touted as the world’s greatest living director. Still, watching The Third Man (or rather re-watching it for the umpteenth time), the idea does not seem quite so fantastic. Of all his films, this is the one where every element people, place, subject matter – seems to have come together in one flawless, preordained package.

It wasn’t so, of course. Like so many sanctified movie classics, The Third Man nearly did not happen that way at all, and somewhere in the same alternative universe that harbours a Casablanca starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan there lurks a project called Night in Vienna, with a conventional symphonic score by William Alwyn and starring Noël Coward as Harry Lime. Luckily Reed ignored the egregious advice of David Selznick (‘Who the hell is going to a film called The Third Man?’), unearthed Anton Karas from a Viennese nightclub, talked the hypochondriac Welles into risking pneumonia in the sewers – and created what’s generally hailed as one of the few undisputed masterpieces of British cinema.

Undisputed, that is, except by those who question its Britishness on the theory that Welles dominated the direction of the film just as his character (on screen for barely 15 minutes) dominates the action. That Welles wrote most of his own dialogue (including the famous ‘cuckoo-clock’ speech lifted from Molnar), is not in doubt, nor that he suggested a few setups and camera angles. But the stylistic affinities with Reed’s other great night-town film, Odd Man Out (1946), the slick black streets, melodramatic lighting and grotesque, tilted framings, are close enough to show that if Reed was influenced by Welles’s style, it had happened well before they worked together on The Third Man.

What Welles did bring to the film besides his finest performance outside his own work – was an obsession he shared with Greene: the preoccupation with betrayal and lost innocence. In The Third Man this theme, which recurs in the work of both men, gains through their collaboration an intensity that transforms the film from the ‘simple entertainment’ Greene claimed to have intended into something far harsher and more poignant. ‘He never grew up. The world grew up around him,’ says Anna, speaking of Harry Lime, but the same goes for Holly Martins. Their similar first names (Anna several times confuses them) mark them out as mirror images, twin retarded adolescents locked into their boyhood patterns of mutual dependence and betrayal. In the novella of The Third Man (not the source of the script, but Greene’s preparation for it), Calloway reflects, ‘Evil was like Peter Pan – it carried with it the horrifying and horrible gift of eternal youth.’ Welles’ playing of the Prater Wheel scene conveys, behind its surface jauntiness, a sense of that same horror – the emptiness of the moral abyss.

The accusation commonly levelled at Reed, that as a director he was only as good as his collaborators, may paradoxically be borne out by the excellence of The Third Man, since here he had the best. Not only Greene and Welles, but Korda (who came up with the original idea), Karas, Robert Krasker’s cinematography – and the shattered city of Vienna itself. Karas’ score may be cheap music but (as that Third Man manqué, Noël Coward, reminded us) cheap music can be very potent, and the zither’s plangent, wheedling tone, its brittle gaiety and air of false bonhomie, perfectly captures the weary, insinuating zeitgeist of post-war Vienna. Krasker (who had also photographed Odd Man Out) turns the ruined city, where wedding-cake baroque cohabits with rubble, into a setting for Grand Opera, a latter-day Götterdämmerung. Welles’ first appearance, the white face looming out of the pitch-black doorway, has become justly famous, but his final entrance is equally impressive: doubly elevated, at the top of the frame and high on a mountain of rubble, his dark-coated figure looms over the wounded body of Vienna like a demon king. In The Third Man melodrama attains sublimity.

But it would have remained mere melodrama had it not been shot on location. Perhaps it took a filmmaker hailing, like Reed, from another war-shattered city to see Vienna (as Rossellini did Berlin in Germany Year Zero) as so telling an index of the intolerable burden of post-war guilt. The sour decadence of the dismembered city, its professional charm worn precariously thin, infects the whole film, including the casting. The Third Man is superbly cast, down to its smallest role – even the elegant, resentful lady toted around by Wilfrid Hyde-White’s British Council official is precisely characterised, though she never speaks a word – but it gains immeasurably from its use of Austrian actors. There’s a painful authenticity about Ernst Deutsch’s phony aristo, with his agonised, ingratiating smile, or Paul Hoerbiger as the ill-fated porter, that suggests direct personal experience of what they’re enacting.

The most imaginative casting coup, though, is the eerie goblin-child Hansel (Herbert Halbik), a being conjured up, with his Grimm Brothers name, from the darkest forest-bound recesses of the Teutonic psyche. Moon-faced and appallingly unlovable, with the blank accusing gaze of one who has seen too much too young, he seems – even more than Harry Lime himself – to embody the malign, corrupted spirit of the city.

‘Death’s at the bottom of everything,’ says Trevor Howard’s trench-coated cop. The Third Man, a film set between two funerals (both of them for the same man) is haunted, permeated by death. Yet like Lime, a killer of the worst kind whom it’s impossible to dislike (and who achieved posthumous rehabilitation as hero of a popular television series), the film’s disenchanted romanticism exerts an irresistible charm. After all these years, that charm hasn’t diminished in the least.
Philip Kemp, Sight and Sound, April 1994

Directed by: Carol Reed
Production Company: London Film Productions
Distributed by : British Lion Film Corporation
Presented by: Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick
Produced by: Carol Reed
Associate Producer: Hugh Perceval
Production Manager: T.S. Lyndon-Haynes
Assistant Director: Guy Hamilton
Continuity: Peggy McClafferty
Screen Play by: Graham Greene
[Original Story] By: Graham Greene
Photographed by: Robert Krasker
Additional Photography: John Wilcox, Stan Pavey
Camera Operators: E. Scaife, Denys Coop
Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter
Assembly Cutter: Peter Taylor
Sets Designed by: Vincent Korda
With: John Hawkesworth, Joseph Bato
Assistant Art Directors: Ferdinand Bellan, James Sawyer
Wardrobe: Ivy Baker
Make-up: George Frost
Hairdressing: J. Shear
Zither Music Played by: Anton Karas
Sound Supervisor: John Cox
Sound Recording: Bert Ross, Red Law
Sound System: Western Electric
Sound Editor: Jack Drake
Austrian Advisor: Elizabeth Montagu
Produced at: London Film Studios Shepperton

Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins)
Valli (Anna Schmidt)
Orson Welles (Harry Lime)
Trevor Howard (Major Calloway)
Paul Hoerbiger (Karl, Harry’s porter)
Ernst Deutsch (‘Baron’ Kurtz)
Erich Ponto (Dr Winkel)
Siegfried Breuer (Popescu)
Hedwig Bleibtreu (Anna’s landlady)
Bernard Lee (Sergeant Paine)
Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin)
Herbert Halbik (Hansel) *

UK/USA 1949©
105 mins


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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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