Bright Lights Film Journal

Carol Reed’s The Third Man on Criterion

Good golly, Mr. Holly!

In one of the many extras in Criterion’s sumptuous DVD presentation of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Peter Bogdanovich calls the film “the greatest non-auteur film ever made.” The idea that Reed was not an auteur, merely a gifted technician, is difficult to credit in light of the director’s career and particularly The Third Man. True, the contributions of others shine here – Graham Greene’s impeccable script; Vincent Korda’s superb art direction; a fabulously polished studio look (some of it was shot at Shepperton Studios, some on location in Vienna); even the haunting zither score by Anton Karas. But the film’s beauty and power clearly come from the same directorial sensibility behind Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and Outcast of the Islands. Reed’s personality pervades the visuals – endless tilted angles, forced perspectives, chiaroscuro lighting – and the film’s melancholy themes of moral tests and the failure of human beings to meet them, and the difficulty – if not impossibility – of human relations in an unpredictable world.

After years of making the repertory rounds in splicy, sometimes shrunken or damaged prints, The Third Man was re-released to acclaim in 1999 in a digitally remastered print. This version is razor sharp, virtually flawless, preserving the film’s extraordinary clarity and textured darkness. Of the many “foreign noirs” and textbook masterpieces of the period, this is one that has to be seen in as pristine a shape as possible.

The story is a familiar one for fans of Graham Greene and Reed. The scene is postwar Vienna, a city under the schizoid control of four powers in uneasy alliance: Britain, France, Russia, and Austria. As in all such contested realms, morality is lax, and illegal trafficking of all kinds pervades the city, from smuggled shoes and tires to watered-down penicillin that kills or mentally maims its victims.

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a somewhat naïve writer of pulp westerns, arrives in Vienna expecting to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But Lime has apparently been accidentally killed by a car driven by his own chauffeur, and their “meeting” is at the funeral. But Martins, too curious for his own good, hears contradictory stories about the circumstances of Lime’s death. Witnesses disappear or are murdered. Martins himself is chased by unknown assailants through the glamorously dark streets of Vienna. Complicating matters are the sardonic Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), head of the British forces, and Lime’s mistress, Anna (Alida Valli), who ironically is a stage actress in comedies that are the antithesis of her misery over the death of her lover.

The film methodically constructs a curious picture of the missing Lime through the comments of those who knew him. Martins remembers him as a charismatic friend. Anna’s unquestioning adoration paints a picture of Lime as a romantic. Major Calloway offers a startlingly different picture of this elusive man as a morally rotten racketeer; he shows a suddenly sobered Martins the effects of Lime’s work in a hospital filled with children dying from the watered-down vaccines that were part of the dead man’s “business enterprises.”

In a brilliant sequence that Reed allegedly improvised late in production, the dead man reappears. In Anna’s apartment, Martins tries to play with a cat, but Anna says the cat only liked Harry Lime. Later, Martins observes the cat wandering along the wet, cobblestoned streets. Eventually it sidles into a shadowed doorway where it licks the shoes of an unknown person. Enter Harry Lime. Martins realizes his friend is alive and pursues him, chasing – as everyone in the film does – a shadow. Finally, they meet, in another celebrated sequence, on a ferris wheel. Here the real Harry Lime emerges, and he’s just as Major Calloway suggested – an immoral monster who cares nothing for Anna or anyone else. Welles improvised a much-remarked speech here delineating his grim worldview. He tells Martins that the violent Italian culture that produced the Borgias also produced Michelangelo, while all the Swiss, known for 500 years of order and good manners, could come up with was the cuckoo clock.

Lime chillingly embodies the chaos of a postwar world with his fascination with survival and triumph at the expense of any moral values. Reed captures this world with a camera that’s often grotesquely skewed, images of a Vienna seen almost exclusively at night, and supremely, the haunting presence of Lime as a literal shadow looming large over the pathetic daily lives of the ordinary people who are his victims. The informative production history on the DVD tell us that Welles was in a sense as “missing” as his character at certain pivotal points in the film. When he arrived in Vienna, he apparently disliked the sewer system and demanded a studio version be built in England. When Welles fled, the ingenious Reed improvised, casting assistant director Guy Hamilton as Harry Lime in shadow, having him dress in a black coat and hat and run across an arc light to project that large ominous shadow.

Welles is almost as famous for this role as for Citizen Kane, but his screen time is considerably less. While he makes the most of his scenes, which include a desperate run through a sewer system that looks like a Rembrandt painting, The Third Man is as much about Martins’s dilemma, his awakening to the sordidness of life, and Anna’s refusal to awaken to it. Acting credits are superior throughout, from the leads to the decoratively weird characters who cross Cotton’s path and help flesh out this bizarre world. These include a carping old landlady perpetually wrapped in a blanket and a strange child who convinces a mob that Martins is a murderer.

The DVD includes the restoration of Reed’s original, more cynical opening speech (David Selznick replaced it with a tamer version by Joseph Cotton, also available here). There are also a couple of radio drama versions, a solid stills gallery to go with the production history, a quickie restoration demonstration, concert footage of composer Anton Karas playing his famous zither (“He’ll have you in a dither with his zither!”), two different trailers, and subtitles for the hearing impaired. All considered, a masterful use of the DVD medium in the service of a fine film.