“I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market.”
And with that brilliant opening voice over narration we are introduced to this landmark film, which in my opinion outdoes the Germans in its Expressionism. I’ve fallen in love with Carol Reed’s masterpiece, The Third Man, which takes elements from classic film noir and German expressionism creating a timeless classic. To say this is the best British film of all time is an understatement, because it deserves to be considered amongst the very best the world has offered. Everything about this film is perfection, from the opening setting of the plot, to the iconic zither score by Anton Karas that accompanies it (which not in a million years I would’ve consider to fit this thriller, but it does), to the memorable Ferris wheel scene where Orson Welles delivers his famous “cuckoo clock” speech, to Orson Welles’s spectacular entrance scene (the best in film history), to the spectacular chase scene through the sewers of Vienna, to the uncountable amount of Dutch angle shots that help build the tense atmosphere accompanied by an unprecedented visual aesthetic from cinematographer Robert Krasker who turns the evocative shadows into a character in this film, to Graham Greene’s fantastic screenplay delivering on every twist, to the final long shot that ends the film in a magnificent and memorable way only adding to the romantic fatalism theme of the story. Every single decision made during the production of this film, even those they came across by chance, seems to have worked to perfection. This is not a case where you can say it’s style over substance or vice versa, it’s one of those rare films where style and substance come together to deliver a perfect visual aesthetic and an intriguing theme with memorable character.
The opening narration introduces us to postwar Vienna, a city of bombed buildings and piles of rubble that has been divided into four occupied zones by the victorious allies (British, American, Russian and French). It is a place where opportunists and racketeers have come to make a living in its widespread black market. This is where Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp novelist, enters the scene. He is broke, but has been invited by Harry Lime, a good old friend from his school days, to stay with him in Vienna. Upon his arrival, Holly discovers that Harry has been killed in a traffic accident. Being the mystery novelist that he is, Holly begins to talk to some of Harry’s friends who witnessed his accident and discovers some inconsistencies in their stories. He reports these suspicions to Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), the man in charge of the investigation, but he quickly dismisses him and says he should return home. The Major believes it is best that Harry has died since he was a racketeer who caused many innocent deaths. Holly however becomes intrigued with the case after the porter of Harry’s building (Paul Horbiger) tells him there was a third man involved in the scene, but who no one else accounts for. Holly also befriends and falls for Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s lover who had immigrated from Czechoslovakia, which gives him another reason to stay for a few more days to try to uncover the mystery of his friend’s untimely death.
The film is so visually stunning (it’s only Oscar win was for best cinematography) that at times people forget to mention how great Graham Greene’s script actually is. He understood this post-war European world and how the black market worked because he himself was a former British spy. That is what makes the story so believable and gives the film its substance. Of course the style is what turns this into a landmark film with its clever shots playing with Dutch angles, lights, smokes, and shadows, its wonderful editing, and its amazing score, but the film has a great plot to go along with it as well as some solid performances. Joseph Cotten delivers a solid role as the lead hero who comes into this world as a naive child believing everything is black and white. He is flawed, he is a drunk who falls in love way too easy. Harry’s friends all have faces who at least look very suspicious (Siegfried Breuer as Popescu and Erich Ponto as Dr. Winkel). And then there is Orson Welles himself who with less than 15 minutes of screen time steals the movie. He could’ve done so with his iconic entrance alone (delivering a perfect smile), which was gorgeously lighted, but he also delivers one of the most memorable quotes of the film as well. Alida Valli also delivers as the femme in this film and it all leads to an exciting finale. For all these reasons and many more which I’ve failed to put into words, I can affirm that The Third Man is a masterpiece. Let me end this review by citing Orson Welles’s memorable speech:
“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.”