Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Third Man (1947) - Carol Reed

Harry Lime trapped in the sewers.
Carol Reed's story of mystery and suspense in post-war Vienna starts with the arrival of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) to the city, lured by a job offer from his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Wells). Martins, an American author of pulp Westerns, is as adrift and vaguely disoriented as the emigres and defeated Germans residing in the closed city.
Like most European capitals at the time, the city is a mess. Suspicion and desperation rule the day. It is divided into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allied powers: France, Britain, the U.S., and Russia, with a free, international zone in the middle. The black market flourishes. Martins is shocked to learn that Lime is dead, the apparent victim of a hit and run accident. At the funeral, a lonely affair attended by three mournerstwo men and a beautiful womanMartins encounters Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a manipulative British policeman who tells him that his friend was a notorious racketeer. Martins is appalled—he hasn't seen Lime in six years but that doesn't sound like the Harry he knew. Calloway won't  say what Lime was peddling, but hints it was nothing so innocent as tires and cigarettes; he is happy Lime is dead and offers Martins a plane ticket home.

Broke and with no prospects back in the States, prudence suggests that Martins take Calloway up on his offer, but he is offended by the man's callousness. He uses an excuse to linger and "investigate" the accident when one of mourners contacts him, claiming to be a friend of Lime's. This is just the first of several strange characters Martins meets, including a creepy child with a ball. When Martins starts to hear slightly different versions of the accident, he begins to suspect that Lime may have been murdered. A critical detail is the number of men who allegedly carried the body. Were there only two as reported by Harry's friends, or three as reported by another witness? A porter at Lime's hotel may be the key, but he gets tossed to his death out a window.

Alida Valli as the captivating Anna.
Martins falls for Lime's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), a Czech residing in the city thanks to a forged passport. She risks deportation to Russia. Martins will do anything to save her, even if it means turning on an old friend. What Lime was actually up to, and who might be the mysterious "third man," is what Martins learns. Along the way his vision of the man he once admired begins to crumble like the city itself.  It is a thrilling ride.  

The shadowy setting of Vienna.
The City of Vienna is as much a character of the film as the actors. War-scarred streets are strewn with bricks and the pavement is seemingly constantly wet. Dilapidated buildings stand side by side with structures of old world architecture. Director Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker make brilliant use of lighting, shadows, and odd camera angles to give a feeling of discomfort and unease, perfected with crisp black and white photography that suits the mood. Most of the action occurs at night. The bizarre twangy strains of a zither provide the only score. Taken as a whole, it is a masterful creation of a foreign city for the audience, a perfect setting for corruption and intrigue. 

Acclaimed writer Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, though Wells is credited with a famous  cuckoo clock speech beneath a Ferris wheel. It is tight and full of mumbled asides and clipped-off sentences like real speech. Greene bookends the film with two funerals, an apt circumstance given the danger that seems to hover just beneath the surface.

What Makes The Third Man Special:

Memorable scenes and an exotic setting transform a modest mystery into a magnificent story. Tense chases take place over mountains of broken bricks and rubble, and though the sewer labyrinth. There is Lime's dramatic and surprising appearance, the ominous Ferris wheel scene, the frantic cab ride, and best of all, Alida Valli's long, slow walk down a tree-lined boulevard.

"That's a nice girl, that. But she ought to be careful in Vienna. Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this."  
Holly Martins waits for Anna.
It is difficult to say who gives the best performance. Cotton is a convincing romantic, out of his element and awkward around Valli, yet inexplicably hopeful. Valli is impressive as a woman who has dealt with struggle and survived, but is weary of it all. She wears that resigned look of someone who has lost something. Their moments together on screen are touching and wonderful.     

The Third Man is simply one of the most atmospheric films ever made, and possesses the most elegant finale ever shot. In 1999 the British Film Institute named it the greatest British film.

Inside Story:

Director Carol Reed does the voice-over at the start of the film. He lets you know immediately you are in for a treat. A dead body is shown floating in the river as you hear, "I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs."

Reed also supplies the fingers in a critical scene near the end.

The film won the Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography and was nominated for Best Director and Film Editing. It also won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Other Films of Interest:

Carol Reed as director - Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), Oliver (1968)
Robert Krasker

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