Carol Reed had early triumphs (1940’s “Night Train to Munich”) and later hits (his bloated but not charmless Oscar-winner “Oliver!”), but he’s most renowned for a three-picture streak in the late 40s that included the masterful thrillers “Odd Man Out” and “The Fallen Idol.” His last film of the period could easily be held up as the final statement of 1940s film, a wildly entertaining, bleak thriller/noir about a broken city, a divided world, and the innocent and not-so-innocent men and women caught up in it. “The Third Man” is one of the most fun downbeat movies ever made, a rollicking jaunt through a devastated world that’s as lively as it is cynical.
Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, a hack writer (one of the best gags in the film sees him out of his depth at a stuffy book club) who travels to Vienna to bury his friend Harry Lime. When he begins to suspect his friend was murdered, he scours the streets for anyone who might have information about the murder, meeting Lime’s shady friends and falling in love with his girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) along the way. Things are complicated when he learns that Lime was a black marketeer and war criminal whose dilutions of penicillin killed many.
Reed’s shadowy, expressionistic style reaches its apex in “The Third Man,” where there are more canted angles than straight ones and wide-angle lenses and chiaroscuro lighting turn Holly’s journey into a nightmarish descent into a dreamlike (but very real hell). Equally important: Reed’s choice to shoot on-location in Vienna, the cobblestone streets of which were so filled with wreckage and crumbling buildings in the post-war era that no set could possibly have matched its palpable sense of ruin. Anton Karas’ zither score only further adds to the off-kilter nature of the film, at once feeling inappropriately buoyant and appropriately haunting.
The cast, for their part, give weary performances that match the film’s world-weary tone, from Cotten as the loyal man who slowly becomes less naïve about his friend’s misdeeds to Trevor Howard’s British authority to Valli’s refugee in love with a despicable man. The one exception (fair warning to anyone who hasn’t seen “The Third Man,” 60-year-old spoilers here) the not-at-all-dead Lime himself, played in an extended cameo by Orson Welles, who gets one of cinema’s most surprising and iconic entrances. Welles’ overt theatricality is perfectly suited to a man who insists that hundreds of years of peace and brotherly love in Switzerland didn’t get much more than “the cuckoo clock.” It’s only in the film’s frantic final chase that he takes on the same desperation as the rest of the cast, and his character gets a wretched send-off that’s at once fitting, pathetic and grand, or at least grander than the silent, sad final moment between Cotten and Valli. Justice is served, good has prevailed, but rarely has victory seemed so pyrrhic.
More thoughts from the web:
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
Reed and his Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Robert Krasker, also devised a reckless, unforgettable visual style. More shots, I suspect, are tilted than are held straight; they suggest a world out of joint. There are fantastic oblique angles. Wide-angle lenses distort faces and locations. And the bizarre lighting makes the city into an expressionist nightmare. (During a stakeout for Lime, a little balloon man wanders onto the scene, and his shadow is a monster three stories high). Vienna in “The Third Man” is a more particular and unmistakable *place* than almost any other location in the history of the movies; the action fits the city like a hand slipping on a glove. Read more.
James Blake Ewing, Movie Mezzanine
Manny Farber, The Nation
The movie’s verve comes from the abstract use of a jangling zither and from squirting Orson Welles into the plot piece-meal with a tricky, facetious eyedropper. The charm, documentary skill, and playful cunning that fashioned this character make his Morse Code appearances almost as exciting visually as each new make-believe by Rembrandt in his self-portraits. Read more.
J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Appearing without makeup, Welles makes one of the most dramatic star entrances in the history of movies. From that moment, “The Third Man” belongs to him. Disrupting Reed’s schema by transforming the villain into an ambiguously charismatic figure, Welles rewrote his dialogue and largely directed his performance, most effectively in the scene where Lime meets Martins at the foot of the Ferris wheel in the empty Prater amusement park. Reed had already adopted a Welles-inflected expressionism for “Odd Man Out.” But it was due to Welles’s elaboration of what might have been just a cameo that Reed extended “The Third Man’s” underground sequences and added an additional chase (including the shot, credit taken by Welles, where Lime’s fingers flutter through the sewer grate). Read more.
Matt Noller, Slant Magazine
Of all the iconic images in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” none is as recognizable as the sight of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) standing in a Vienna doorway, bathed in shadow. Accompanied by Anton Karas’s unforgettable zither score, it’s one of the most iconic entrances in film history, which is befitting one of film’s most iconic characters. Although he’s only on screen for a fraction of the film’s running time, Lime stands out as one of the screen’s most chilling embodiments of the banality of evil, and a perfect stand-in for “Third Man’s” vision of moral breakdown in post-WWII Europe. Read more.