The Third Man (1949)
As always we like to close out the year with an undisputed masterpiece, and given its 4K restoration and the occasion of Welles centenary what else could we track down than The Third Man, the brooding 1949 Graham Greene scripted classic, widely regarded as one of the finest British films ever made. Although he is only in the film for three scenes, two of the them wordless, Welles casts a long shadow on what is probably the most beloved out of the films he didn’t direct – that honour falls to the great Carol Reed – while rumors of the original script versus ad-libbing during the classic ‘cuckoo-clock’ speech has entered cinema myth. His stature as the wunderkid, the so-called ‘great disrupter‘ as he has been crowned isn’t just restricted to his own work, and to the public mind at least he is probably best known for that inquisitive smirk when the light falls across his furtive frame, and his pontificating on the difference between conflict and evolution, peace and stagnation. I’ve done fairly well with him over the years, already managing to cover four of the core texts, but a new refresh of this timeless classic also seemed crucial given the beautiful new 4K transfer for a new generation. Apparently this is the first restoration that the film has enjoyed since its 1949 debut which seems criminal for such an influential and beloved piece of work, and you’d have thought that the BFI would have wrangled some regeneration by now, given its preponderance on ‘best-of-all-time’ lists for the UK alongside early Hitchcock, David Lean and Michael Powell masterpieces.
Without German Expressionism this film simply would not exist, and it may well be the most perfect coda of that deeply influential cinematic strain, the final statement on one of the movies greatest artistic movements which had been crushed by the Nazi’s rise to power and subsequent exile of European talent. It’s not just the shadowy, off-kilter, brooding lighting from cameraman Robert Krasker (winning him the Oscar), it’s not just the hypnotic purr of Anton Karas alien zither score which became a global hit back in those pre-internet days. No, it is that sense of something rotten and purifying at the core, something raw from the recent world-wide conflict and ancillary holocaust, with the disruption manifesting itself almost physically and psychically in the bomb blasted craters and raid swept streets of a scarred Vienna which has been divided up between the Allies and Soviets in the first frost of the Cold War. The Third Man’s exhausted, melancholy feel is personified in Joseph Cottons laconic portrayal of Holly Martins, an American pulp writer who is seeking answers to the death of his friend Harry Lime (Welles), a black marketer reviled for exploiting economic gain from a desperate and starving populace – sounds familiar. Shadowed by British Major Colloway (Trevor Howard) and falling for Lime’s mourning girlfriend Anna Schmidt (a feline Alidi Valli) Holly wanders the streets of Vienna, encountering surprises and deceit lurking around every corner.
The Third Man is a master-class of casting and hides possibly the greatest cameo appearance in cinema history. Is there anyone better than Welles in imposing a larger than life character in precisely three scenes, two of which with virtually no dialogue, the final furtively focused on a desperate hunt through the Viennese sewers? The entire film revolves around this mysterious presence, the charismatic yet devilish Harry Lime, you may even wish to link it through to Charles Foster Kane’s on-screen enigma, and the search for his ego and history echoing and reverberating between the two pictures. Welles was always in crafty control of his public persona and reputation, his film avatars bleeding into the real world through his feats of prestidigitation, his frivolous manipulation of the truth and legend that swirling around his career and personal relations. Although it trades in some dark areas The Third Man is also quite whimsical with a keen sense of period specific humour, the narrative following a cosmopolitan café pathway as Holly meets with Lime’s associates and opponents as he tries to piece the story together and the identity of the mysterious, titular apparition. This time around I was really struck with Alida Valli’s sad, tragic beauty, reminiscent of Nina Hoss in this years Phoenix given the setting and fragile demeanour. She wasn’t well-known to English language audiences despite her starring role in this and Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, but she did have quite the European career working with heavyweights such as Pasolini, Antonioni, Visconti and Bertolucci, and even cropped up in Argento’s Suspiria. The transfer is impeccable and is supported by a swell of documentaries and commentaries, and two audio only interviews with Cotton and Graham Greene from the then National Film Theatre archives.
I think I’ve used this anecdote before but it bears repeating, as I just love the story of how once the film was released and become and international hit John Huston sent Carol Reed a spirit level as a cheeky comment on his choice of photography. He was fondly ridiculing the uncomfortable Dutch-angles that peppers the film, although curiously I’ve seen this cited as originating from William Wyler rather than Huston – I always assumed it was the latter and that fits in with his legendary mischievous sense of humour. The first time I saw The Third Man I was probably twelve or thirteen, probably on some BBC2 transmission, and it has remained a perennial favourite ever since. It’s not necessarily a picture I’d watch ever year but certainly revisit once every five years or so, a definitive inclusion for the top 100 list. I knew that the final shot was a stroke of genius when I first saw it all those years ago, subverting the usual archetype of the man riding off into the sunset with the girl. Reed, through Greene’s fidelity to his characters experience and motivations darkly inverts the tradition with Anna’s purposeful stride to the screen and out of the picture, not even acknowledging the existence of Martin as the zither stutters with its final melancholic howl. You simply didn’t close films on such a realistic downer in 1949, a true masterpiece, now regenerated in all its dark, brooding intensity;