The Third Man (1949)
“Hunted by men…Sought by WOMEN!”
Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli
Synopsis: Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, black-market opportunist Harry Lime.
That chatty narrator giving a summary of the black market culture in post-war Vienna at the beginning of The Third Man is the film’s director, Carol Reed (although, until recently, I’d spent most of my life believing it was Wilfrid Hyde-White, who has a small role in the movie as the hapless British Cultural Attache who comes to regret inviting American pulp novelist Holly Martins to give a lecture on his department’s behalf). It’s an oddly cheerful prologue which is at odds with the Noir-like tone of the rest of the movie, but is typical of Reed’s inventiveness and quirky directorial touches.
The post-War Vienna in which Martins (Joseph Cotton – Shadow of a Doubt, The Abominable Dr. Phibes) arrives is an incongruous mix of imposing architecture and war-blasted rubble, a harsh external reality which mirrors Martins’ own internal psyche. He has ambitions of being a writer, but publishes only pulp Westerns, and he wants to be a heroic crusader unmasking the killer of his friend, Harry Lime, but succeeds only in learning a few unpalatable truths about both himself and his former friend. Lime was a black marketeer, selling diluted penicillin which resulted in the deaths or mental incapacitation of sick children, and is mourned by a girl (Alida Valli), whom the wretched Martins forlornly hopes to rescue from repatriation to Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. Her failure to be repulsed by Lime’s activities suggests she is as lost as Martins. Martins turn from would-be crusader to informer, a shift that results in that famous long-walk scene and a devastating blank.
It was unique, back in 1949, for the ‘hero’ of a movie to be such a sorry individual and Martins’ wretchedness is underlined when compared to the likeable scoundrel Harry Lime, who goes through life with an amused smile on his lips and a gleam in his eye. Cotton plays his part every bit as professionally as Welles, but Martins is just another sad and jaded Noir character, whereas Welles’ Harry Lime breezes out of the shadows and gazes about him with bemusement, as if secretly delighted by all the murkiness and subterfuge. The strength Martins’ lacks is provided by Trevor Howard’s no-nonsense British officer, resplendent in a shiny leather mac when we first meet him.
The film ends in Vienna’s vast, cavernous sewer system, subterranean tunnels, filled with unlikely sources of light, which echo to the sound of Lime’s panicked footsteps. It’s a memorable finale, crowned by the moment (again suggested by Welles) in which Lime’s fingers slip through a street grate, stretching towards the freedom he cannot reach and yearning for the life that will soon slip from his grasp. It’s not Lime’s death that we remember so much, as that startling image, proving that, even when his contribution was limited to little more than a cameo role, Welles could transform an already very good movie into a great one.
(Reviewed 11th November 2014)