Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella 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. So long Holly.
And there we have one of the most impish, mischievous pieces of cynicism ever spoken to the camera, essentially a throwaway moment in a movie yet the one that’s most fondly remembered and perhaps best sums up the nature of the character who delivers it. The Third Man (1949) has come to be regarded not only as a classic film noir but one of the true high points of post-war British filmmaking. It remains a dazzling piece of work, urgent, energetic, inventive and beguiling. I’m of the opinion that the greatest films all share one common characteristic: they can be revisited time and again and still manage to reveal different aspects of themselves to the viewer. There’s either a richness of theme or a subtle shading of the characters that allows for a shift in perspective, meaning that as our moods or feelings change over time the films are capable of addressing or coping with that. That’s what struck me as I watched The Third Man for the umpteenth time the other day, the way I found myself responding to the characters in a different light on that occasion.
The story unfolds over a couple of days in Vienna, a city whose Hapsburg splendor has been stripped naked and ravaged by the obscenity of war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in the city breezy and brimming with confidence having been promised a job by an old friend. Holly’s friend is Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and it appears that he’s going to be some kind of publicist for a vaguely defined medical charity. And yet no sooner has Holly set foot in Vienna than he discovers that instead of coming to praise Harry, he’s come to bury him. It appears that Harry met with a sudden accident: crossing the street to speak to a friend he happened to see, Harry is run over by a truck driven by his own chauffeur before being pronounced dead by his personal physician who was passing that way by chance. All very tragic and all very convenient. But coincidence is the preserve of fiction, and it’s not long before Holly realizes that the Harry he knew was really a work of fiction too. Full of righteous indignation, Holly first believes that Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British major, is besmirching his friend’s reputation before changing tack and coming to the conclusion that Harry was actually murdered. It’s during his blundering but well-meaning “investigation” of the circumstances of Harry’s mysterious end that Holly meets his friend’s lover. Anna (Alida Valli) is an actress, beautiful, tragic and enigmatic, almost a metaphor for post-war Europe itself. With his doubts about Harry’s life and death growing larger all the time, Holly begins to fall under the brittle spell cast by Anna. As he becomes more smitten by her charms, he undergoes another change, the ultimate one. The combination of his love for Anna and his understanding of the true character of Harry leads Holly to a betrayal that’s justifiable, perhaps even desirable, on a moral level yet somehow wrong on a human level.
Much has been written about The Third Man over the years, more scholarly and in-depth analysis than I could hope to achieve so I’m not going to attempt to compete with that. The unique locations, the driven direction of Carol Reed, the iconic photography of Robert Krasker and Anton Karas’ distinctive score all blend together to create a masterpiece of unease. Visually the film captures the fragmented nature of the era where everything felt a little skewed and off-center, a hard to define sense that something isn’t quite right, that all is not really what it seems. Of course all this technical and artistic brilliance is immediately apparent the first time one sees the film, and subsequent viewings only serve to underline that quality. However, as I said at the beginning, repeated viewings have drawn my attention to other aspects of the film, namely the characterization. This comes down to the skilful writing of Graham Greene and the performances of Welles, Cotten and Valli in particular. The shadow of Welles and Harry Lime loom large over the whole production, both the character and his interpretation by Welles. For a long time I was very taken by the Harry Lime character, I guess I still am to an extent, and the fact he inspired both a radio show and a TV series proves how widespread that feeling was. But let’s be honest here, Lime was a rotten and reprehensible character, a self-absorbed sociopath without a shred of pity or decency. It’s Welles’ brilliant portrayal – the modulation of voice, the expressiveness of his features and the fleeting twinkle in the eye – that transcends all that. Had anyone else played that role, it wouldn’t have worked. At all.
However, let’s return to those shifting perspectives I alluded to earlier. While Welles and Lime dominate the movie, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the characters of Holly and Anna. Holly is, I suppose, the nominal hero, the everyman through whose eyes we see the story develop. I came to sympathize with him, with Cotten’s no-nonsense portrayal of a guy who has his illusions gradually pared away until he sees things in the cold, clear light of day. I was rooting for him, wanting him to come out on top and get the girl in the end. That masterful long shot that ends the movie used to break my heart. I could imagine myself as the poor schmo getting out of the jeep and waiting for the girl I loved to approach, and then she just walks straight on, eyes fixed ahead and indifferent. And there was Holly, alone and empty, standing awkwardly on an empty road leading to a cemetery. As I watched the film a couple of days ago I caught myself looking at it from a different angle though. This time I was thinking about Anna and the way she is actually the only one of the central trio who displays honor and true integrity. She’s come to understand that her love for Harry was misplaced, even wasted, yet that realization doesn’t invalidate its truth. It was her loyalty right to the bitter end, her implacable refusal to betray her love, both the man and the ideal, that impressed me deeply. So as I say, it’s a film of many layers and every time I see it I seem to peel away another one.
Fortunately, The Third Man is a film which is very easy to see for anyone unfamiliar with it. There are lots of editions available and most of them are attractive. I have the old 2-DVD set released in the UK some years ago which has a very strong transfer and plenty of good extra features to boot. I’ve thought about maybe upgrading to the Blu-ray as it’s a title that gives me a lot of pleasure but I remain undecided. I have a kind of unwritten rule for myself that I won’t upgrade unless I’m honestly dissatisfied with some aspect of the presentation I already own. Watching this one again, I can’t really say that I am particularly dissatisfied, so we’ll see. Anyway, we’re talking about a bona fide classic here, a film which you can return to many times and it never loses any of its freshness. If you haven’t seen it before, then do so at the earliest opportunity. And if you have, watch it again and see what grabs you this time.