The best movie you can see in theaters right now—okay, provided you live in one of America’s largest cities—was made about 65 years ago, and features not a single dinosaur, robot, or anthropomorphized emotion. The Third Man, Carol Reed’s classic postwar noir, is back on the big screen, its black-and-white glory enhanced by the spit-shine of a 4K restoration. In this new digital scan, prepared for the 100th anniversary of Orson Welles’ birth, the darkness runs darker, the daylight shines brighter, and every iconic image—like a pair of fingers reaching sadly, futilely out of a sewer grate, or a famous face emerging from the shadows—looks as pristine as it must have looked in September of 1949, when the film triumphed at the third not-yet-annual Cannes Film Festival. (For fitting symmetry, the restoration premiered at this year’s Cannes.)
Viewing the tumultuous aftermath of World War II through the microcosm of a corrupted friendship, The Third Man might have resonated with the all-French jury of 1949. Cannes, which was originally conceived as a response to the Axis propaganda of the Venice Film Festival, suffered a false start a decade earlier when—on the first (and only) day of the aborted first festival—Germany invaded Poland. That’s a roundabout way of saying that the war looms large over both The Third Man and the fest that awarded it Grand Prize (six years before the introduction of the Palme D’Or).
Or maybe the deciders just knew a masterpiece when they saw one. More than half-a-century later, and outside of the shadow (a word you’ll encounter again in this piece) of WWII, Reed’s movie still stands as one of the most convincing arguments for cinema as a fundamentally collaborative medium. It’s a collision of artistic visionaries, the kind that might start quarrels between hardcore auteurists. Does the film belong most to Reed, or to its other English creator, the novelist-turned-screenwriter Graham Greene? Is it an Orson Welles film at heart, never mind that—contrary to enduring myth—he didn’t direct a frame of it? Or does Aussie cinematographer Robert Krasker, the man responsible for all those striking Dutch angles and the film’s peerless interplay of light and dark, deserve his name before the title? Hell, one could even make a case that composer Anton Karas is the true star of The Third Man; it’s impossible to imagine the movie without his infectious zither score, which became a chart-topping hit the world over.
In a rundown of Cannes’ “most noteworthy” premieres, Time critic Richard Corliss emphasizes the extent to which The Third Man belongs to multiple national film cultures, with its cast and crew made up of American, European, and Australian talent. “For an international festival on the rise,” he writes, “here was a truly international film that was both timely and classic.” The pan-global makeup of the production is apropos, given the movie’s setting in an occupied Vienna divided by the Allies into multiple quadrants—an American, a British, a French, and a Russian zone. A few years after the war, the city has become a hub for black-market activity, as explained in the darkly comic narration of the opening scene. (Reed himself reads the monologue. The version released in U.S. theaters originally featured replacement narration by the film’s star, Joseph Cotten, at the behest of demanding American co-producer David O. Selznick. Most versions of the film in circulation today use the original voice-over instead.)
Adhering to, or perhaps perfecting, the crime-fiction convention of an amateur investigator getting in way over his head, The Third Man sends an American interloper into this den of thieves. Traveling to Vienna for an employment opportunity, pulp Western novelist Holly Martins (Cotten) discovers that the man who made the job offer, his old childhood friend Harry Lime, has been killed in an automobile accident. The authorities insist that Harry was a crooked racketeer and encourage his mourning comrade to split town. But as Holly attempts to clear Harry’s name, he begins to suspect foul play. Nobody can get their story straight about the accident. Did Harry die the second the truck struck him, as some claim? Or did he have time to deliver some last words, as others insist? Were there just two men with him in his final moments? Or, per the title, was there a third man? And if so, who was it?
“There were no strangers there at all,” Holly declares, upon discovering that just about everyone present at the scene of the “accident”—including the driver of the vehicle—knew Harry personally. The Third Man presents a world where everyone knows everyone, a small world of conspiratorial whispers. Reed frequently empties entire streets of extras, turning the grand city into an abandoned ghost town—all the better to echo the way WWII thinned the ranks of the global population, leaving behind only survivors who did “things that would have been unspeakable before the war.” Everything is for sale in this bombed-out, exploited Vienna, and everyone is working an angle. That includes sad-eyed actress Anna (Alida Valli), who Harry was seeing before he died and who Holly rather promptly becomes enamored of. Laying low with a forged passport, she’s at once a romantic and a pragmatist. When Holly refuses the whiskey she offers him, Anna replies, “Good, I wanted to sell it.”
Heavy in subject matter but light as a feather, The Third Man deftly juggles tones. Reed handles each shift with aplomb, drenching daytime and nighttime scenes alike in paranoid atmosphere, while also keeping the plot zipping merrily along. (That earworm zither score—jaunty at one moment, curiously affecting at others—helps modulate the mood.) One of Reed’s more courageous, unconventional choices is leaving every line of German dialogue un-subtitled. This puts non-German-speaking viewers in the same position as the film’s hero, a man “from the other side.” In a running gag, Holly keeps mispronouncing the name of the British Army captain (Trevor Howard) with the dim view of his dead friend, calling him Callahan instead of Calloway. (“I’m English, not Irish,” quips the quick-witted officer.) It’s a good joke, but also a pointed one: Holly can’t even keep the names straight in Vienna, so how can he untangle the mysteries of the place, a land foreign to him in more ways than one?
As beautifully directed as it is, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the elegant architecture of Greene’s script, or the pop and snap of his dialogue. It’s one of those movies that makes you truly grateful for the unrealistic eloquence of fictional people, the effortlessly clever way that characters converse on screen. Calloway alone is a constant source of verbal wit, tossing off casually cutting zingers like “You were born to be murdered.” And the romantic subplot, which might seem tacked on in a different movie, possesses a bittersweet glow, some of it provided by the actors—Cotten and Valli develop a beautifully subdued attraction—the rest by Greene’s carefully conceived rapport. Never does the famously Catholic author, crafter of such classics as The End Of The Affair, allow us to forget that these are two people drawn together by grief, and that whatever relationship they develop is inextricable from the man they both miss.
But The Third Man reserves its best moments—and its most iconic ones—for its supporting star, the great American director moonlighting here as a scene-stealing villain. The uninitiated and the spoilerphobic would do best to click away at this point, as there’s no way to discuss this role without getting into the film’s most enduring image: that sudden flash of light that illuminates the shadows (there’s that word again), revealing to Holly that his slain buddy is still alive, and to the audience that he’s to be played by none other than Orson Welles. Is there a more perfect introduction in all of cinema than that shot of Harry Lime smirking in the doorway, wordlessly conveying his amused disbelief that his old friend ever thought he was really dead?
You have to wonder if audiences (or jury members) in 1949 were surprised by this twist. In hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine Welles, first- or at least second-billed on most of the posters, playing anyone else in the movie. As the actor would later point out, the entire film is about Harry Lime: Just about every scene consists of characters talking about him—debating his motives, recalling his exploits, commenting on the profound influence he had on their lives. The Third Man builds him up to such an extent that plenty of actors—including Noel Coward, who Selznick reportedly wanted for the part—might have failed to live up to the Harry Lime we create in our heads. But not Welles. He turns Lime into a figure of casual evil, a man so corrupted by the new world the war created that he can rationalize the most heinous of crimes. The film’s other classic scene, besides that famous reveal and an extraordinary climactic footchase through the sewers, is the conversation Harry and Holly have on and around the Ferris wheel. It basically twists that possibly invented Stalin quote about the death of millions being a statistic into both a veiled threat and an instructive monologue. (Welles himself is said to have had some hand in the “cuckoo clock” line, which he delivers with chilling nonchalance.)
At its core, The Third Man is about how World War II fundamentally altered the character of Europe, turning idealists into pessimists and blurring the lines of moral relativism beyond recognition. Even by noir standards, it’s a deeply cynical vision. But it’s also a funny, thrilling, and romantic one, rich in the humanity it laments. If Harry is the embodiment of cold, postwar opportunism, then Holly is his more multi-faceted foil. There’s an occasional screwball charm to his adventures, as when he’s bitten by a parrot when fleeing both a disastrous book event and a pair of goons. Cotten also amplifies the character’s melancholic qualities, the faint sadness of his professional station (he’s a writer whose work no one takes seriously) and the doomed courtship he tumbles into. By doing the right thing, Holly ends up losing both loves of his life—a sacrifice made clear in the powerful final image, an unhappy ending Greene initially opposed.
That’s not the only creative difference The Third Man weathered; there are stories of Welles irritating the cast and the crew with his high demands, and of Greene and Reed biting their tongues through meetings with Selznick, who didn’t even like the title. None of those tensions, however, bled into the final product, a whole considerably greater than the sum of its tremendous parts. Like Casablanca—another story of circumvented laws in an occupied city, featuring a love triangle of sorts and a lawman who’s both friend and foe—The Third Man demonstrates what it looks like when everybody involved in a movie is firing on all cylinders. That’s a pleasure that never goes out of fashion, even after, say, the zither has.
Did it deserve to win? Those other films? They’re just tiny dots compared to The Third Man. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? (Okay, The Set-Up is pretty good. Obsession, too—though if you have to see just one classic British noir from 1949…)
Next up: The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg