The 1949 British black and white film, The Third Man, is, in many ways, the filmic equivalent of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. By that I mean the most obvious things are scoffed at as being not trustworthy, whereas the most implausible things are winked and nodded as being ‘true.’ As example, in the JFK Assassination mythos, there are two indisputable pieces of evidence that evince a conspiracy in the murder of the President: a) the Zapruder film, shot inadvertently, which clearly shows a head shot from in front of the moving car (the opposite direction of where Oswald was located), and b) live television coverage where the world saw known mobster Jack Ruby shoot Oswald, then remain silent about the conspiracy till his death. By any reasonable standard, including Occam’s Razor, there was an indisputable and provable conspiracy in the death of John F. Kennedy. Yet, still many people heed the fabulism of the Warren Commission, and not what they actually witnessed, either then, or in subsequent years, in person, or on television. Of course, I believe Oswald shot JFK, or attempted to, but there was clearly a second gunman, one Oswald likely knew nothing about, and who was sent as insurance so that the real shooter could get away and Oswald could legitimately be, as he claimed, a mere patsy in something that extended far beyond him, and in which he inadvertently got caught up in. In a similar vein, The Third Man, whose screenplay was written by Graham Greene, from a novella he wrote as a cinematic treatment, is constantly billed as a Carol Reed film even though it clearly does not conform to his canon of filmic work, and having seen other of his films- from the hum drum second rate Hitchcockian Night Train To Munich, to the third rate crime thriller Odd Man Out, to the mediocre The Fallen Idol and Our Man In Havana, to the pedantic and somnolent The Agony And The Ecstasy, to the laughably bad Oscar winning Oliver!- Reed proved he was no David Lean, much less an Alfred Hitchcock, and, was, at best, a solid studio director. Thus, to be told that he crafted a great film like The Third Man, out of nowhere, with no prior indications as to a soaring talent, is to require a suspension of disbelief even greater than that the Warren Commission asks. Add to that, then, that he never produced a film even close to it in quality, and one needs to ask, why does anyone even bother with the façade any longer? In short, never has a work of such greatness ever been the product of such an otherwise mediocre hack. It simply does not happen. But, the work is clearly in line with the great films, made before and after, by the film’s blacklisted star Orson Welles, whose oeuvre includes Citizen Kane, The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai, Mr Arkadin, Touch Of Evil, and The Trial, among others. In fact, for the first few decades after the film’s release, it was a not quite open secret that the film was Welles’ baby, simply bearded by Reed. And when I say it was Welles’ I’m not saying Reed saw no action behind the scenes, simply that the film’s conception, execution, and vision were Wellesian. In numerous interviews, Welles hemmed and hawed around the obvious, for legal reasons, to not get Reed and company in Dutch with the American film industry. But it was known and admitted as such, including Welles, up till the day he died.
However, in recent years, it has become fashionable to denigrate Welles as an egomaniac (and even worse, a not really great film director) and try to lift Reed up to a place as his equal as a filmmaker, also on par with Lean and the lesser Hitchcock. Why this is is interesting. Perhaps because the film is so obviously Wellesian there is a need to make its provenance even more interesting, by obfuscating the obvious, or attempting to do so? Yet, regardless of all the revisionism, The Third Man is so clearly rife with Wellesian cinematic DNA, and void of Reedian genes, that to claim that Welles had no influence, over the film, as many Reed partisans do, is to overstate the case to such a degree that only the manifest can be seen as true: it was the great filmmaker, Welles, whose blacklisting required the bearding of the journeyman Reed, who was the creative force behind the film, not Reed. And the film falls neatly into a pattern of great and near-great films that define the Welles canon, and not the hit and miss mediocrity of studio director Reed, who stumbled upon an anomalous happy accident. I will touch back upon this point, later in this essay, when apt.
But, now, on to the basics of the film. The film opens in a quasi-documentary style, with stock footage of post-World War Two Vienna being divided into four zones, each governed by one of the victorious Allies, as well as an international zone, run by all four powers. Into this steps American Western hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is responding to a job offer from his old schoolmate (Orson Welles). He soon learns Lime was killed in an accident, and goes to the funeral, at a cemetery. There he meets several of the film’s principals, whom he will later engage with. But the two he has first contact with are two British Army Royal Military Policemen: Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee, who played M, in the early James Bond films), and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Paine is a fan of Martin’s work, and Calloway (who is constantly called Callahan through the film, by Martins- the first of many nominal errors; including Anna’s calling Holly Harry, Dr. Winkle’s insistence on being called Vinkle, and Harry Lime’s name being wrong on his gravestone) reacts to Martins suspiciously. Nonetheless, he offers Martins a ride to his hotel.
There, Martins accepts an invitation to speak to a local book club, which means he cannot return to America as soon as Calloway would like. He also mingles with business associates of Lime’s: Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), men who tell him the grim details of Lime’s demise, and how they took away his body. Kurtz also mentions Lime’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, but billed as simply Valli), an actress, and Martins takes off to the theater she works at, and endures a play just to speak with her. Speaking with her, she reveals things about Lime that do not add up, and make Martins wonder if Harry’s death was not accidental. This is when a porter named Karl, at Lime’s house (Paul Hörbiger), tells Martins that Lime’s body was taken away by more than just the two men mentioned, but a ‘Third Man’- hence the film’s title. Later, Martins visits Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto), Lime’s personal physician, and Martins grills him about the death of Lime. The doctor denies there was a third man, but, the next day, the porter is murdered before Martins tries to square the conflicting information he has gotten from him and the others. After more intrigues, and a failed lecture at the book club, where he declares his next novel will be called The Third Man. He is then pursued by two men who seem to want to harm him, but Martins escapes. He finds Calloway, who again advises Martins to go back to America. The writer refuses, and demands that Lime’s ‘death’ be re-opened as a murder investigation. This is when Calloway shows him a dossier and photographs that prove Lime was a racketeer in dirty penicillin, stolen from hospitals and sold on the black market. This diluted penicillin ended up maiming and killing dozens. Martins agrees to fly out the next day.
The film then digresses to Anna’s pending deportation by the Russians, for her passport was faked by Lime. At her apartment, he tells her of Lime’s real business, but she’s already been told the same by Calloway. They talk around each other, and as he leaves, across the street, he catches a glimpse of Lime in a doorway, when a light comes on in an apartment. Lime flees, and seemingly vanishes into thin air. Martins brings Calloway and Paine to the spot he lost Lime, but Calloway doubts him, until Calloway spots a kiosk entrance to the sewer system nearby. He connects the dots, and believes Martins’ tale. He orders an exhumation of Lime’s body and discovers that a hospital orderly who went missing is buried in Lime’s place. Later, in the Russian zone, Martins and Lime meet in a famous scene that takes place on a Ferris Wheel. Here comes some of the film’s great existential moments- such as Lime’s suggestion that human lives are disposable dots up for a price, the fact Lime was the one who turned Anna in, and Lime’s final jab, where he claims war and conflict is the furnace for creativity and greatness whereas peace, such as that Switzerland has enjoyed for 500 years, leads to dull stagnance, and things as earth-shaking as the cuckoo clock.
Stunned at this side of his friend, Martins agrees to help Calloway nab Lime, provided Calloway ensure Anna is not deported by the Russians. She refuses to help Martins, even by quietly leaving the city, and Martins reconsiders nabbing his friend until Calloway takes him to a hospital and shows him children crippled by Lime’s bad penicillin. Martins goes to meet Lime again, at a café, but Anna arrives and kyboshes the plan. Lime is warned it’s a setup, and takes off. He hides in the sewers, but is doggedly pursued by dozens of military police. A great scene occurs when he is physically alone in the sewers, but surrounded by the voices of others. Sergeant Paine is shot dead by Welles, and Major Calloway shoots Lime, who is mortally injured, yet drags himself up a stairway, and tries to lift off a sewer grate, his fingers extending through the holes in a great existential moment. Then, they wither back underground. Martins arrives, with Paine’s gun. Lime looks at him, and in silence, with eyes only, begs his old friend to shoot him. Martins obliges. Lime is buried a second time, a near replay of the first, faux, funeral. Martins and Calloway drive by Anna, alone on the road out of the cemetery. Martins gets out, hoping to speak to her. In a long take, Anna slowly walks toward the camera, from far away, and right past Martins, not saying a word, nor lifting her head. The film ends with her passing by the camera eye stage right, as Martins frustratingly just stands and swings helplessly at the air.
The film has been lauded for many things, but almost all of them are veined deeply with Wellesian cinematic DNA: the screenplay, especially the changes involving the Martins and Lime characters from the novella and initial treatments through the dialogue additions by Welles. The tilted camera work, the black and white, the use of light and shadow, the focus on foreign faces; all are straight from Welles’ earlier films, whereas one need only look to the prior film Reed Made, The Fallen Idol, to see how short that picture falls, for while it has a few touches (theme and camera angles), they are both handled, by comparison, rather clumsily. In my review I wrote:
This is not because The Fallen Idol is such a bad film- it’s merely mediocre, even if it is based upon a Graham Greene work (as is The Third Man)- The Basement Room, but that there are only a few techniques in the film which augur the grandiosity of their usage in the later film- which was so Wellesian, that to contemplate that Reed soared to greatness out of mediocrity, for the single film he collaborated upon with Welles, then resumed a mediocre career, when the more Occam’s Razor answer is that it was Welles who guided the vision of The Third Man, is to simply not recognize verities of the way art is created and the way artists work and mature.
As example, the two later Reed films I mention differ from The Third Man in that they are in color, in different genres, and made many years later, so that one could argue that Reed may have simply ‘lost his touch.’ But, given that The Fallen Idol was made a year earlier, is in black and white, and based upon a work by the same writer, the comparisons between the two films is apt, although the difference in quality is stark. But, why would Reed agree to such a thing? Well, he wanted to break into the American market, where this film did not do as well as other films by Britons as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, he shared political sympathies with and an artistic admiration of Welles. Plus, he got locked into a career track that led to greater financial success and recognition even as the requia for his solid artistic talents diminished in need. If you were a man who recognized his limits, and had a chance to help an idol whose techniques you aped, in exchange for personal success, would you refuse? Or would you do so, and deny the obvious to your grave?….Not long ago, I watched the terrific Val Lewton/Robert Wise film, Curse Of The Cat People, from 1944. In it, a female character the same age as Phile, is similarly adrift in an adult world of lies and emotional violence. That film, however, and despite being sullied with a ‘B film’ label, is far superior to The Fallen Idol in every conceivable aspect- from the technical to the screenplay to the sublime acting by that film’s lead, Ann Carter (who plays Amy). There, one is in the mind of the child till the end, and that film never falls back into cliché. The fact that it does not resort to theatrical angles is also a plus, for while such angles work in a Cold War thriller like The Third Man, in a film from a puerile perspective, like The Fallen Idol it serves to show up the actual lack of substance such theatrics were trying to hide.
Yet, especially in recent years, there seems to have been a critical movement afoot to try and argue that this mediocre film is somehow on par with The Third Man, and since it is so manifestly inferior, it begs a reasoning of the motives. The one which makes the most sense is that some critics want to argue that Reed was some visionary auteur, and that The Third Man was not such a great sore thumb in an otherwise workaday filmic resume. In short, the argument is clearly meant to bolster the claim that Reed was the force behind both films, rather than just the first one, and a beard for the second. Yet, The Third Man clearly is an oddity- due to its great quality, and unlike the bloated solidity of The Agony And The Ecstasy or the execrable dotty musical Oliver!, this earlier film is the key to unraveling The Third Man’s real provenance, for without it, those who deny Orson Welles’ hand in that film can obscure their arguments with time, technical developments, and technique, while The Fallen Idol acts as a smoking gun that reveals its creator’s limits, its alibiers’ motives, and its successor film’s great ineffability.
By contrast, all of the technical aspects of The Third Man are superb, including the cinematography by Robert Krasker, and the memorable scoring by Anton Karas, whose zither music became a mid-century craze. It’s truly amazing how much emotion was wrung out of one very particular instrument. The Criterion Collection DVD package has the British version of the film, which is longer (104 to 93 minutes) than the American version, and superior. The British version opens with a voiceover narration by Reed, while the American version’s voiceover is by Cotten, as Martins. Aside from a slightly better framing of the film, Reed’s voice acts as an anonymous omniscient, whereas Cotten’s voiceover sets up the film as possibly being too intimate a viewpoint of Martins. It is a two disk package, and one of the best the company has produced since it went ‘lite’ in its features, after adopting the semi-circle large C logo. The transfer is shown in a 1.33: aspect ratio, and it’s a good print- not perfect, but good. The second disk has many good features, such as a 90 minute long making of documentary called Shadowing The Third Man; an hour long 1968 episode of the British television series Omnibus, featuring an audio interview with Graham Greene- one quite daring in its presentation, called Graham Greene: The Hunted Man; an episode of the radio series The Lives Of Harry Lime; a 30 minute Austrian documentary called Who Was the Third Man?; a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film; Joseph Cotten’s American version voiceover for the film; and a few other minor things, including the film’s American trailer. There is also a booklet with a few minor essays on the film, from Luc Sante, Charles Drazin, and Philip Kerr. Even better features await on the first disk which, aside from housing the film, has a video introduction by the world’s most famous ex-filmmaker, and ‘personal’ pal of Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, and two audio commentaries on the film. The first is with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy. They make an odd pair, as neither had any even indirect association with the film. It’s enjoyable, as the two banter on in filmese, but compared to Soderbergh’s commentary with Lem Dobbs on The Limey, it simply does not compare- probably due to the fact that Gilroy is a hack screenwriter of Hollywood junk, whereas Dobbs is not. Much better is the commentary track by film scholar Dana Polan. As with his review of Angels With Dirty Faces, Polan is thorough, detailed, scene specific, and enthused to the point of never letting any dead spots break through his audio. He has, in the two commentaries I’ve listened to, proven to be a rival to both film critic Roger Ebert and film director Francis Ford Coppola as the best commentarian going, although he does err in claiming that the blank slate Anna is as important a character in the film as Martins. Overall, it’s an excellent package.
The Third Man won the Grand Prix at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, the British Academy Award for Best Film, and the Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography in 1950. It deserved those honors and more, for, despite the claims of would be glad-handers of the film, it was well above standard Hitchcockian thrillers. It is also, along with Casablanca, often pointed to as an exception to the auteur theory of filmmaking, in terms of making great cinema. Of course, since that theory is cracked, it matters little, and since Casablanca is not a great film, to begin with, it’s not an apt connection. But it is certainly a film noir, as Harry Lime is probably the best, if not most perfect, antihero that genre’s ever come up with. He is both unscrupulous in general, but with a definite set of principles regarding those around him. He is capable of cruelty and betrayal, but also decency. And finally, to return to the obvious, that this film far more easily falls into the canon of Welles than Reed, let me state again that I, in no way, doubt, that Reed directed many, if not most, of the scenes of the film. But the best scenes, the ones that are remembered; those with arresting visuals and splendid speeches (including the overlapping of dialogue)- those are the Welles touch, and Welles clearly had an enormous impact on the film’s direction and overall flow: in short, he was the main force, if not the primogenitor, of the project. He said so, and implied so, on more than one occasion, and even in the extra features of the DVD, in an interview where Welles dutifully honors his commitment to denial, one can almost see the sour turn of his face and the hesitance in his voice to disown his baby. By contrast, Reed went on to direct many more mediocre to solid films in his otherwise forgettable career. And for those who have tried to, in a latter day fashion, claim that Reed was a far better director than that he really was, all I can say is, why was the man only touched with greatness during the lone project that involved Welles, and no others? Simply put: greatness in art does not spike out of nowhere; it is part of an arc that is discernible. And if one still disbelieves that, just watch the rest of the films in the two men’s respective canons, and it’s clear that The Third Man is more Welles than Reed, for the creative impulse simply does not work as the current mythology of the film would have one believe, no matter what any commission might tell you!