Cine-East Film Club Presents #16: 1949, The Third Man (Carol Reed)

by George_East on July 27, 2013

Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, so have I.’  (Harry Lime)

The big day has arrived.  Cine-East is back.   I wanted to re-launch with one of the greatest films ever made, though initially I wasn’t quite sure which film.   My instinct was to plug one of the gaps in my posts so far that I identified in my preview post in the week – maybe one of the great films from post-War Italy (Rome, Open City or L’Avventura perhaps) or maybe one of the Soviet silent classics from the 1920s like Battleship Potemkin or Man With A Movie Camera.   But then Charlie East-West’s Apocalypse Now-inspired post on Thursday provided me with the idea for the perfect re-launch film:  Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man.  I’ll come back to the relevance of Charlie’s post in a bit.

The Third Man’s reputation is huge and thoroughly deserved.  It was voted the greatest British Film of all time by a survey of 1000 people from the world of film and television in 2000.  And there really aren’t many serious rivals to that crown, in my view:  for my money, only Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Lawrence of Arabia and maybe Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps and The Lodger are in the same league.  It is an absolute rock ribbed masterclass in great cinema.

Its director, Carol Reed, was very largely a jobbing director for most of his career and certainly not someone who you would put in the same category as Powell & Pressburger, Lean or Hitchcock:  along with The Third Man he is probably most famous for directing the 1960s ‘food glorious food’ musical version of Oliver!, after all.   But for a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s he could live with that august company: he made 3 back to back masterpieces of which The Third Man was the middle film between The Fallen Idol (1948) and the IRA-betrayal focused Odd Man Out (1951).

But it was in The Third Man that all of the elements came together perfectly:  the cinematography, the acting, the screenplay, the mood, the setting, the sound design and the soundtrack.  The film is pretty much flawless.

The film tells the story (written by novelist Graham Greene) of a broke American alcoholic pulp western novelist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) who has been invited to still-occupied Vienna to stay with an old school friend, Harry Lime, only to find that Lime has apparently been killed in an accident the day before he arrived.   Martins is not convinced by the coincidences around Lime’s death:  he was apparently killed outside his apartment by his own driver, in front of two of his friends just as his own doctor happened to walk by, in time to pronounce him dead.

The discovery that there was a mysterious ‘third man’ who helped to carry the body of Lime but who has disappeared and who did not give  testimony at the inquest, only makes Martins more suspicious.  He suspects foul play.   In probing the circumstances of his friend’s death he falls for Lime’s lover, actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and constantly clashes with the British military police who are investigating a racketeering ring headed by Lime involving the sale of stolen and then diluted penicillin, which has had a lethal effect on many Viennese children.

Much of the film is shot on location, using a still war wrecked Vienna superbly – even the area around St Stephen’s Cathedral (which is prominent in some shots), Vienna’s most iconic building, is still strewn with bomb rubble, abandoned burnt out cars and twisted metal.   The city is used magnificently from the belle époque buildings from Vienna’s Hapsburg pomp, to the giant nineteenth century ferris wheel (the Riesenrad), to the sewer system beneath the city.

The city is mostly empty – the ordinary Viennese are dirt poor after the War, are restricted in where they can move (it is a closed city) and are barely seen in the exterior shots of the film.  The hard times of the Viennese are constantly underlined by small things:  the ferris wheel is empty because no one can afford to use it; Anna, who is an actress hopes to sell a bottle of whiskey an American admirer gave her instead of flowers; one of Lime’s aristocratic cronies is forced to busk in restaurants to earn some money.  Indeed one of the major themes of the films, is that in a devastated post-war city everyone needs to do something in the black market just to survive:  the question the film asks is how far are you willing to go,  what pain or suffering are you willing to cause in order to do so?

This emptiness of the city made more unsettling still by the use of long shadows and tilted angels.   In a stake-out scene towards the end of the film, a huge shadow of a man approaches on a wall in an otherwise empty city square. Is it Lime? It turns out to be just an elderly balloon seller, but the effect of the shot is extraordinary.  Heightening the tension of the characters and the audience – Lime is bigger than life and a threat to both Holly and Anna, and to Vienna itself (it is the children of the city who have been affected by his penicillin scam) it says.

Unlike in Andrzej Wadja’s Kanal (Cine-East’s second presentation) in which the second half of the film takes place in Warsaw’s sewers and the dark dank claustrophobic nature of the underground space is emphasised, in The Third Man the sewers are lit so that dramatic shadows are shown.   Reed is not aiming for that film’s naturalism, he is instead drawing heavily on the German expressionist tradition of the 1920s and American film noir, using light and shadow as a way of demonstrating the psychological state of the characters (in Martins’ case, he is guilty and torn between loyalty to his old friend and his desire for Anna on the one hand, and the knowledge that Lime’s racketeering has been killing or permanently maiming children).

The acting is universally superb.  From Joseph Cotten’s dyspeptic Martins, Alida Valli’s Garbo-like tragic performance as Anna, to Trevor Howard’s clipped British Officer, Major Callaway, through to the character parts: the wonderful Wilfred Hyde-White as the hapless cultural attaché, Crabbin, who books Martin to speak on the End of Faith in the Contemporary Novel, not realising he writes nickel and dime western paperbacks rather than literary classics; Siegfried Bauer as the smooth but menacing Boycie-tached Romanian racketeer, Popescu and Bernard Lee as Callaway’s sidekick, Sgt  Paine, are all particularly good.  (As an aside and a bit of trivia there is a Bond connection in the film – Bernard Lee would go on to be the original M, playing the role in all Bond films to Moonraker and the assistant director of The Third Man was Guy Hamilton who would go on to direct four Bond films, including, for my money the two best: Goldfinger and Live and Let Die).

Which leaves me with the three justly most famous of things of all about the film.   Anton Karas’ extraordinary soundtrack on the zither.  It is the plucking of the zither which we see underneath the credit sequence at the beginning, such is its importance to the overall construction of the film.

The Third Man and in particular the main theme from the film (once, as it happens, covered by The Band) must be up there with Dr Zhivago, The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars as one of the most instantly recognisable original scores.  The combination of its mittel-European instrumental sound and its lightness of mood, captures both the setting of the film and the sense that everyone is being taken for a ride by Harry Lime.

Just like the film itself I have left mentioning Orson Welles’ astonishing performance as Harry Lime to most of the way through this presentation.   Given that, after Charles Foster Kane, Harry Lime is probably Welles’ most famous role, it is extraordinary that he does not appear at all until about two thirds of the way through the film and has no more than about 10 minutes of screen time (despite being second on the bill beneath Cotten).   The first shot of him hiding in the doorway as Anna’s cat nestles on his foot and the apartment window reveals his presence to both Holly Martins and us, is justly famous:  the light shining on him,  the camera panning in, coming to rest as Lime, a glint in his eye, breaks into a cheeky smile.  Not dead after all.

But it is the scene at and on the Riesenrad Ferris Wheel which is the centre piece of Welles’ tour de force performance.  It is this scene which takes me back to my reason for choosing The Third Man in the first place:  how sometimes it is the unplanned that can make for the greatest cinematic moments.   Charlie East-West referred to Brando’s ad libbing of much of Kurtz’s dialogue in Apocalypse Now.  In The Third Man it is Welles who transformed an already astonishing scene: as Martins and Lime spar over God, death and the value of life (‘would you really care if one of those dots down there disappeared’) while on the wheel, into one of the greatest scenes in cinema, when as they get off the ferris wheel, Welles famously added these lines for Harry Lime:

‘Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful.

Like the fellow says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.

In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.


And I will end with, well, the ending.  For me it may be second only to John Ford’s The Searchers in its brilliance.   After Harry Lime’s funeral (his second  – the fake first one was pretty much where the film started), Martins waits for Anna Schmidt, in the foreground of the shot. Anna walks up a long road towards him from the background, slowly.   The whole thing appears to be set up for a conventional romantic ending (now Lime has been buried, surely Anna can move on with the obviously smitten Martins) but all convention is ignored by Reed.  She keeps walking towards the camera and walking, until she walks straight past Martins. Not stopping. Not saying a word to him. Not even as much as acknowledging him.  She walks on past the camera and out of shot.

The End.

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