The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is not an Orson Welles film, despite his role in it and inevitable identification with it, but it feels like one, boasting a visual sense on a level with no less than Citizen Kane; that alone is sufficiently rare to make any given movie a must. But luckily, it’s also a brilliantly-performed, stylish masterpiece of a thriller, with a script that, through eloquent dialogue and the kind of perfect surprises that don’t come from suspense picture conventions, never trails off.

I’ve gotten to the point that this film, a lively rollercoaster bubbling over with great ideas. literally gives me chills. I am overwhelmed by how brilliant just about every element of it is: the use of war-mangled Vienna locations, the pitch-perfect performances (especially by Alida Valli, but Joseph Cotten is wonderful as usual), the flawless and airtight script by Graham Greene — and more than anything, the way that (like Kane) it explores the negative-space impact of a human being, how one’s duplicitous and complicated life is finally interpreted through the hazes of love and contempt. Long before we know he breathes yet, Harry Lime is a palpable creature through the vastly different perceptions of him shared by others; there’s a kind of energetic sense of life that feeds from his absence. We soon enough learn that his evil apparition hangs over the lives left in his wake in more ways than we can initially know; he’s a symbol, a figure of postwar dread and — for more than one character — post-lovesick malaise and mourning, but he’s also, as another Welles picture would one day have it, “some kind of a man.”

But Welles’ Lime only appears halfway through the picture. Until then Lime is a different creature, a deceased enigma whose true nature is hidden from us as long as his best friend stands in denial of it. That best friend is the audience vessel and the soul of the picture: Cotten plays pulp-novelist bum Holly Martins, who welcomes the opportunity for employment that comes from an old friend of his in Vienna, only to find upon arriving that said friend has been hit by a car and that the police were after him for all sorts of horrible shit. Cotten sets out to clear his pal’s name and ends up getting mired in More Than He Bargained For in classic film noir fashion. It’s the perfect setup for a traditional thriller like the man might’ve written, and he certainly sees himself as a sort of belaguered hero — but there’s more than a grieving woman, more than a mysterious past, more than a corrupt book of secrets here: there is an actual lethal darkness, soullessness slowly consuming the city, the hero, the story. There’s more to be discovered here than he was ever meant to know, and it often feels — even on revisiting the film — like we are learning things we shouldn’t, as though it’s somehow a curse to do anything but leave the seemingly dead for dead.

Welles would later seep his characters into a similarly tasty world of noir intrigue in the uglier, more nihilistic Touch of Evil, which makes for a fascinating comparison to this film. Touch is a movie of enigmas, and this is one of ideas — it transcends noir because on some level, it becomes about the joy and possibility of cinema storytelling and its emotional capacity. It might share numerous tropes with the rest of the genre: there is an everyman alone, a tortured woman, a fearsome antihero of sorts, and we aren’t really sure whether or not to be sympathetic to the police (generally taking the form of a delightfully understated Trevor Howard). For me at least, it trounces a picture like The Big Sleep because its story and characterization are so deeply intertwined — one does not simply comment on the other, one is the other — and Out of the Past because its examination of its protagonist’s evolving inner conflict is vastly more sophisticated and telling. Some don’t even consider The Third Man a pure film noir for this and other reasons. There are stronger elements of the traditional whodunit, at least early on, but these procedural moments are deceptive. It is certainly vastly more in the vein of a Hitchcock picture, if nothing else then in terms of its identification with and sympathy toward both Cotten and Valli’s characters. We progressively come to care ever more for them, even as the film’s twists and turns push them apart. There is even a delightful quote from The 39 Steps, wherein Holly finds himself ambushed while stuck giving a lecture about writing just to ward off various leeching problems; Cotten, absent of the self-assurance of a Robert Donat, hilariously stumbles through and comes away dejected as the mess he’s in grows ever more confusing.

But Hitchcock seldom committed himself so thoroughly to such an exercise in melancholy, at least until Vertigo (also about a literal manifestation of the dead coming back to watch the living) or thereabouts, and aside from Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt, few of his films contain so many telling, small human moments like that final, resigned nod from Harry, or the way Cotten so fully sells Holly’s gradually building depression, disappointment and sense of betrayal, or the complete sincerity of the adoration Anna (Valli) displays toward Harry. Graham Greene’s script also splits from suspense tradition with its air of the unexplained: we are never given a complete sense of who Harry was when he and Holly were best friends, and to the same degree, the version of Harry that Anna saw is mostly left to our imaginations. We only see Harry, the real Harry, very briefly, and otherwise only know the cold truths of his life — and the film asks us whether it’s these facts and realities or the perceptions of those who loved him that finally comprise Harry Lime as a true individual.

For the most part, it’s Welles and not Hitchcock or Lang or Dassin or any other director whose shadow looms here; much as Harry weighs so heavily on those left behind, his real-life counterpart is an unmistakable influence over the stunning look of The Third Man, though he’d swear in years to come that every last idea was Reed’s. Not only is the film piled end to end with unforgettable images — the fingers coming up through the grate, the Kane-like deep focus alleyways and shadowy closeups — it also puts forth Reed’s wicked sense of humor, with barely veiled sex jokes and knee-slappers dealing with our busybody hero’s ineptitude.

And yet Reed also knows when to get out of the way of a truly magnificent script. Greene’s plot is mostly utilized as a way to get to the fraught emotions in his two most important characters while underlining the real human cost of unchecked capitalism in a zone of ambiguous morality like Europe in those fraught years. Everything somehow leads to the true climax of the picture: the speech from Welles that you know is coming, that you’ve probably heard recited before you ever see the film. It’s one of the most famous dialogue scenes in the history of the medium, but it still shatters every time in its poetry, its tension (how does Cotten not fully believe that he is about to be pushed from the top of that ferris wheel?), and its sense of chilled uncaring that can make the blood run cold? I adore Rope, but you can place this side by side with James Stewart’s fiery speeches about supermen in that film and the disparity is stark indeed. By the time Harry Lime walks away from that scene, Reed has made not just an unshakeable point about a post-WWII loss of innocence but has better defined the phrase “banality of evil” than anyone else in any medium ever has or ever could.

But of course, movie magic prevails: the two lengthy chase scenes — one along the streets and one through the sewers — are among the best ever shot and edited, easily ousting that deservedly beloved French Connection car chase. This movie’s action is mysterious, creepy, and involving. And the ending… what an ending. The way you quietly hope Reed will wrap it up a few minutes before the final curtain is exactly what he does, but accomplished in a way better and more beautiful than you can imagine. It’s one of the best final shots I’m aware of, an idyllic and haunting and penetrative completion of Valli’s cycle in the picture. The casual emotional slaughter in that last moment, however much it’s deserved or unearned or maybe both at once, is enough to haunt your dreams.

The music helps; Anton Karas’ zither begins as a celebratory establishment of setting, later becomes the focus of terror, of intrigue, of mystery, and by the end, almost unbearable lyricism and romance. Like the film, the score is absoltely magic, I don’t know how else to put it. I wish there were hundreds more thrillers or mysteries that were so emotionally serious and stunningly beautiful, full of such speed and poetry. I think this was my seventh time through and I already can’t wait to see it again.

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