What's the Big Deal?: The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man has elements of film noir, but isn't always included in discussions of that genre. It features a memorable performance by Orson Welles, but wasn't directed by him. It's been called the best British film ever made, but it also once appeared on the AFI's list of best American films ever made. Everything about it is a mystery! Let's climb the ladder down to the sewers of Vienna and investigate what the big deal is.

The praise: It won an Oscar for its cinematography, and was nominated for its direction and editing. It also won the BAFTA (the British version of the Academy Awards) for Best British Film and took the top prize at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. It was ranked 57th on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 best American films ever made, but fell off the list entirely when it was revised in 2007. (It was a stretch to call it an "American" film anyway. Two of its actors and one of its producers were from the United States, but the director, screenwriter, and most of the financing were British, and the film was shot in Vienna and London.) The British Film Institute declared it the best British film of the 20th century. It's currently the 65th-highest-rated film among Internet Movie Database users.

The context: In 1935, the British novelist and journalist Graham Greene wrote a review of Carol Reed's directorial debut, Midshipman Easy, in which he said that Reed had "more sense of the cinema than most veteran British directors." (How many "veteran British directors" were there at the time? Well, there was Alfred Hitchcock and ... um ....) Greene was even more impressed by Reed's work in his next film, Laburnum Grove, writing: "Mr. Reed, when he gets the right script, will prove far more than efficient." As it turns out, the elusive "right script" for Reed's filmmaking talents would have to be written by Greene himself.

Reed was a stage actor who transitioned into film production in the 1930s, at a time when English cinema was booming. He dabbled in a variety of genres and styles throughout the decade and made some war-related pictures in the 1940s, including The True Glory, co-directed with America's Garson Kanin, which won the Oscar for best documentary of 1945.

Reed was now the top director in England, but it was his collaboration with Graham Greene that would earn him a permanent spot in the pantheon, and one film in particular: The Third Man. Introduced to each other by Hungarian-British mega-producer Alexander Korda, Greene and Reed had an instant rapport, and not just because Greene had admired Reed's work from the beginning. They were about the same age (early 40s) and had loved movies for as long as movies had been around. First they made The Fallen Idol, in 1948, based on a Greene short story. Many of Greene's novels and stories had been turned into films, but the movie buff wanted to write something directly for the screen. Korda, meanwhile, wanted something set in Vienna. Greene showed him the opening sentence to an unwritten story:

I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.

Korda was intrigued, and The Third Man was born. It's easily the most famous movie Carol Reed would ever make, and probably the biggest for Greene, too. (Other movies based on his fiction include The Quiet American and The End of the Affair, each of which has been adapted for the screen twice.)

To help his creative process, Greene wrote a novella of The Third Man first, intending to use it strictly as source material for the screenplay and not to publish it. It was published anyway, of course, once the movie was a hit. (Greene wrote in the preface that "The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen." I suspect he cashed the royalty checks all the same, though.) Greene and Reed collaborated extensively on the story, prefiguring the way Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick created the book and screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey 20 years later.

Financing the film with Korda was David O. Selznick, the notoriously meddlesome American producer of Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. When Selznick's first choice for the lead role, Cary Grant, wanted too much money, he got Joseph Cotten instead. For the role of Harry Lime, Selznick wanted Noel Coward, while Reed wanted Orson Welles. A bit of subterfuge on Reed's part helped him get his way. This proved to be a blessing, as Welles and Cotten were old friends and frequent collaborators who shared the screen well.

Today, the film is a testament to Welles' star power. Selznick considered him box-office poison (a not entirely inaccurate assessment) and a prima donna (ditto), but his 15 minutes of screen time are mesmerizing. Despite not showing up until the film is an hour old, he is third-billed in the cast -- and he earns it, so much so that today The Third Man is probably better-known for Welles' connection to it than for Cotten's or even Reed's.

Reed was probably influenced by Welles-directed films like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Third Man has a distinct look to it: lots of tilted angles and stark shadows. Because of this, rumors popped up that Welles, not Reed, had in fact directed The Third Man, but both men scoffed at the idea. Reed didn't just direct the film -- he directed it almost 24 hours a day, with separate units for night and day scenes working around the clock to reduce downtime. For that matter, Welles was barely present in Vienna to appear in his own scenes, let alone peer over Reed's shoulder.

There is another important element of context for this film: It's set in Vienna a few years after World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history. Most of the film was shot on location in the ruined city. The profound impact of the war and its 60 million casualties was felt in all areas of life, including movies. In his book A History of the Cinema from Its Origins to 1970, Eric Rhode suggests how this may have influenced The Third Man:

The burden of post-war guilt must have been overwhelming. In some countries the denial of this guilt took the form of a manic materialism.... In other countries it emerged as a weariness of mood in which Augustinian beliefs [i.e., that mankind is innately wicked] had some appeal. The Augustinian -- and adroit -- screenplays written by Graham Greene for The Fallen Idol, which is concerned with the irreparable corruption of a child, and The Third Man, which is concerned with the murder of children, illustrate vividly some of the ways in which compassion and self-pity could be confused.

Roger Ebert wrote something along the same lines:

The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It's a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway [the British military officer], who has seen at first hand the results of Lime's crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels.

The Third MadThe Third Man, with its evocative black-and-white photography, grim subject matter, and gallows humor, certainly does exhibit a "weariness of mood." The war had changed everything, not just physically (note the bombed-out buildings and ruins) but philosophically. As one of the film's racketeers says, "I've done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war." Most people's way of life was irrevocably altered. The Third Man is about that transformation.

The movie: An American writer of pulp Western novels, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), arrives in Vienna to visit an old friend named Harry Lime, and is dismayed to discover that Harry Lime was just killed in an auto accident. The details of this "accident" are immediately and obviously fishy, so Martins sets out to investigate, aided somewhat by Lime's girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, credited simply as Valli). The official report is that the mortally wounded Lime was dragged out of the street by two passing friends. But an eyewitness to the incident claims there was -- wait for it -- a THIRD MAN involved.

Miller's CrossingWhat it influenced: The Coen brothers' film noir homage Miller's Crossing has several nods to The Third Man, including the ending, which also has some echoes in Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. The fact that the Coens, Scorsese, and Altman all revered The Third Man enough to borrow from it is evidence of its impact.

Then there is the matter of the film's visual style. Ebert wrote, "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." Reed said that this was done "to make the audience uncomfortable." So much of the film was off-kilter that after seeing it, Reed's friend and fellow director William Wyler sent him a bubble level and said, "Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?"

Tilted angles (also called canted angles and Dutch angles) were common in film noir, but Reed used them so much, and to such great effect, that the technique came to be associated with The Third Man. Any film textbook section on canted angles is almost obligated to cite The Third Man. Notoriously contrarian film critic Armond White, in his review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, declared: "In the history of motion pictures, [Michael] Bay has created the best canted angles -- ever." Either White is using "best" to mean "most" or "most exaggerated," or he is using the term ironically, or he has not seen The Third Man. (Another possibility: Since most people like The Third Man, White has decided he doesn't.)

What to look for: Ebert's observation that the film represents postwar American optimism and European weariness is astute. America, while suffering tremendous casualties, had been spared the trauma of having to fight the war on its own soil, of seeing its own cities bombed. America emerged a conquering hero while the other participants, even those on the winning side, were in ruins.

You can see this contrast of attitudes in the film. Holly Martins -- who writes that most American of genres, the Western novel -- arrives in Vienna full of optimism and cheer. He doesn't speak any German, nor does he make any effort to; he prefers to ask the locals if they speak English. He is committed to the principles of truth and justice, believing that good will win out over bad. Meanwhile, the Europeans in the film are more cynical, more jaded, more dispirited. Harry Lime, having left the United States for Austria some years ago, had apparently adopted the local flavor of despair and weariness.

The film's musical score is famous in its own right. It's all zither, all the time! (The main theme, released as a single, was actually a hit in 1950, demonstrating that people in 1950 were more easily entertained than they are today.) The music is generally peppy and thus incongruous with what's happening in the story. Reed liked the juxtaposition. At any rate, you won't see many other films that have an all-zither musical score.

What's the big deal: In addition to being a suspenseful, well-made noir, The Third Man captured a bit of how Europe was feeling after World War II. It also captured a performance by Orson Welles that has come to be iconic, making it a snapshot of the late 1940s.

Further reading: Bosley Crowther's original review in the New York Times is an amusing artifact. Roger Ebert's 1996 essay is likewise invaluable.

These three entries at Criterion are worth checking out. See also this discussion, which includes excerpts from an interview with Carol Reed.

The British Film Institute's Screen Online site has a good basic biography of Reed, plus these four succinct articles on The Third Man.

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Eric D. Snider (website) was the fourth man, but he had to drop out.