THE THIRD MAN (Carol Reed, 1949)

Overrated though it may be, The Third Man is not without interest. Its plot suggests that Americans are perfectly capable of exploiting any situation for the sake of profit. Harry Lime (Orson Welles, who wrote his own big speech, and whose filmmaking style Carol Reed more or less adopts), who may or may not be dead and, if dead, may or may not have been murdered, sold diluted penicillin to desperate, impoverished hospitals, resulting in agonized deaths. Here at work is the ghoulish spirit of enterprise. The setting is postwar Vienna.
     Graham Greene, adapting his own story, has written a protracted script in which an American friend of Lime’s, pulp fiction writer Holly Martins, visits Vienna to see Lime, only to discover that Lime is suspiciously dead and that various clues are at variance with the official account. This is mostly dull, obligatory stuff that versatile camera angles, different languages and accents, along with zither music, fail to enliven. Joseph Cotten, prissy as ever, cannot hold the center. Welles, however, is enjoyable as opportunistic Lime, and Trevor Howard and Alida Valli are outstanding as Major Calloway, a cold-blooded military/police official, and Anna, Lime’s haunting, softspoken lover, a Czech with a forged passport attempting to elude Soviet arrest. There is a running gag about a confusion of identities; Anna can’t recall Holly’s name, and Holly keeps addressing Calloway as Callahan, causing Calloway at one point to bark, “I’m English, not Irish!”
     But it’s a long haul until Lime appears, none the worse for being dead, sparking Reed’s pedestrian film into some sort of life. Unfortunately it almost immediately collapses into being a routine thriller again as the police hunt down Lime.
     This film cannot compare with Mario Soldati’s The Stranger’s Hand (1952), which Greene produced.

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2 thoughts on “THE THIRD MAN (Carol Reed, 1949)

  1. It’s always played for me as a contrast between American naivete and European cynicism.

    And then there’s the score. Just love the mood.

    Aida Valli walking past Holly … what a final scene.

  2. The report tends to belittle the classic insomuch in being patronising. or is it otherwise?
    Carol Reed needs no endorsement on his direction. I am in no way putting down Orson Welles who I also consider one of the greatest directors and actors but at no point of time does Sir Carol Reed need to emulate Welles’ style. Watch Reed in his other movies to accept and understand his inimitable style.
    Back to the Third Man – It is nothing short of a masterpiece. The atmospheric allure of the period, brooding photography and its grim and frank retelling of post-war Europe is still a treat. The hardboiled cynicism of the British officer and the cool and unrepentant blackmarketeer played to perfection by Trevor Howard and Orson Welles is amongst their greatest performances. The role of Joseph Cotten as the author of penny thrillers jars a little as it tends to stereotype.
    But best of all – AAH that zither music.
    Krishna Kumar Menon, Chennai(Madras), India

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