Well folks, it’s another week of Cinematic Century and another look into one of the most highly regarded films of all time. Over the course of this project I’m going to be talking about a few movies that frequently get referred to as “greatest films of all time,” and today we’ll be talking about one of the films that gets that accolade, but probably isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as something like Citizen Kane. Now, as a reminder, this list isn’t necessarily what I consider the best films of each year, but my favorite film. The thing is, 1949 doesn’t have a whole lot going for it, at least to me. Yeah, there’s All the King’s Men, which I have talked about before, but that movie is really just kind of fine, nothing too special. And, no offense to the Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but I don’t really think it holds up as one of the better Disney flicks. There’s also a campy musical about sailors called On the Town that I’ve seen, but the less said about that movie the better. Other than that, I haven’t really seen many films from this year. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Third Man, my pick for favorite movie of 1949, is a hell of a film. Often movies that get lauded as “important” can feel a little stuffy, becoming films that are easier to appreciate than love. But that’s not the case with the Third Man. It’s certainly a film that can be thoroughly examined and which holds a massive place in cinema history, but it’s also just an incredibly exciting and fun noir adventure that remains one of the most unique and shockingly cynical films of the 1940’s.
Oddly enough, this film began when novelist Graham Greene wanted to write a screenplay, but first decided to craft a novella specifically to work everything out. The novella and the actually released film have a lot of differences, especially the ending, but it was pulled from real-world experiences in post-War Austria, and was enough to get the attention of Carol Reed, a very prolific British director. However, the Third Man becomes the second film that I’ve discussed here on Cinematic Century to contain a whole bunch of drama thanks to one Orson Welles. Because for years the rumor that Welles actually directed the bulk of the film, and more or less took it away from Reed persisted in Hollywood, only to be debunked. In actuality, Welles was kind of a pain in the ass to work with, which kind of helped prove David O Selznick correct, since he didn’t want Welles in the film to begin with. Welles was stubborn, showed up late to filming, and insisted on building massive sets of the sewer that the climax is set in because he refused to actually film in the real sewers. Hell, the film even became so stressful for Reed that he ended up becoming addicted to Dexedrine to keep up with everything. But, despite so many things seemingly working against this film, it worked. It’s regarded as one of the finest British films of all time, it’s one of the most beloved noirs in cinema history, and is probably the most prominent use of zither in all of history.
The Third Man takes place in post-War Vienna, still struggling to build itself back up after the blitzkrieg. It’s a town that’s at the mercy of all manner of criminals trying to make a buck off the struggling town, and getting around the four argumentative countries that are trying to control the city. Enter an American named Holly Martins, a pulp Western writer who has arrived in Vienna at the insistence of an old friend of his named Harry Lime who has a job for him. Unfortunately, when Holly gets to Lime’s home he finds that Lime recently was hit and killed by a car while dealing with two associates of his. Holly is stunned by this, and ends up attending Harry’s funeral, which is where he meets a British Major named Calloway, who lets Holly in on Harry’s true work. He claims that Harry Lime was a con man and a criminal, and recommends that Holly just forget him and leave the country. Holly can’t accept that Harry was a criminal though, and decides to agree to give a lecture on Westerns in order to have a reason to stick around Vienna and poke around, hoping to clear his friend’s good name. From there he quickly learns that the two men Lime was seen with were a man named Baron Kurtz and a man named Popescu. He also learns that Harry was in a relationship with an actress named Anna, and begins meeting with them.
Holly quickly starts to establish that no one’s stories are adding up, and things get even more mysterious when an eye-witness to Harry’s death suggests that the saw a third man with Kurtz and Popescu that he couldn’t identify. Holly also starts spending time with Anna, and quickly develops a crush on her. She helps Holly translate to the people he interrogates, and also believes that Harry must be innocent. But, despite having someone on his side and helping him understand what’s happening around him, Holly finds himself deeper and deeper in an apparent conspiracy. No one, from Harry’s friends to Major Calloway seem to want Holly poking around in Harry’s death, but things really start to get troubling when Major Calloway finally decides to put forth his evidence. He calls Holly into his office after his lecture on Westerns becomes a complete disaster after Popescu shows up and starts intimidating him, and lays it all out. Calloway explains that he has evidence that shows that Harry Lime was a war profiteer. There are plenty of people who made money on the black market after the war, but Harry Lime specialized in buying, doctoring, and selling penicillin that ended up resulting in a lot of people dying thanks to his faulty product. And it all seems iron clad. And Holly is devastated. He can’t refute the evidence, and decides to formally give up. So, he heads to Anna’s apartment to tell her what he’s learned, but she doesn’t care. She’s too busy worrying about the fact that she’s getting deported after her and Holly’s investigation gained the attention of the authorities and realized she was in the country fraudulently.
Holly leaves the apartment, and notices someone following him. He loses his cool, and starts yelling at the person, only to reveal that it’s Harry Lime. Holly has no idea what’s happening, and Lime manages to escape before Holly can talk to him, but he knows what he saw. So, Holly goes to confront Kurtz and Popescu and demands to set up a meeting with Harry. And, the next day the real Harry Lime shows up at a Ferris Wheel with Holly, and explains everything. He admits that everything Calloway told Holly was true, and that he doesn’t regret causing the death of innocents at all. He even threatens Holly if he continues poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. And after the meeting Holly really can’t believe what he just heard, and goes to meet with Calloway. They end up digging up the supposed grave of Calloway, and find that it’s actually the corpse of a partner of Lime’s. Holly then agrees to help Calloway trap Harry, and sets up a meeting with him. But, before he captures Harry he decides to talk to Anna, and tries to convince her to leave with him. Unfortunately, Anna remains completely devoted to Harry, and even manages to clue Harry in on the trap. Harry then flees from Holly, Calloway, and some Vienna police, fleeing into the sewers underneath the city. A massive manhunt ensues, and eventually Holly is able to corner his supposed friend. He ends up killing Harry, and attending his real funeral. Holly then leaves Vienna alone, Anna wanting nothing to do with him.
Films like the Third Man can often feel a little intimidating when you watch them for the first time. It has such a storied legacy, and can become a towering landmark of film that potentially feel more like homework than an enjoyable narrative. But, the Third Man really deserves to be seen. True, it is a wonderful work of art, a film that could be studied for years, but it’s also just a hell of a good time. The film is a true marvel from a cinematography standpoint, doing everything that it can to create an intimidating and strange world for Holly Martins to wander through. They utilized tilted “Dutch Angles,” near Expressionist shadows, and a lack of subtitled foreign dialogue to expertly demonstrate just how lost Holly is in this film. He’s completely adrift in a town that is tearing itself apart trying to rebuild itself, and the one thing he can grab a hold of and orientate himself has been killed. Joseph Cotten is amazing as our protagonist, wandering around Vienna and trying to just wrap his mind around the insane things that are happening around him. He becomes an accidental detective, one of my favorite character tropes in all of fiction, and we get to travel around the weird and wild world of post-War Vienna with him, struggling to survive in a world where literally every person he encounters seems to be pulling their own elaborate con on him. Orson Welles historically is a bit of an asshole, especially in regards to the things he pulled during the production of this film, but it’s impossible to deny how completely charming and captivating he is in this film. Harry Lime is a character that has a lot of build up, and when he finally arrives it completely pays off. He’s not even in the film that much, but what few moments he’s in work like gangbusters, giving us a morally bankrupt and fascinating villain/MacGuffin that orchestrates this entire weird ride.
Harry Lime is a fascinating character, and a wonderfully cynical and dark one. When he first meets up with Holly on the Ferris Wheel he gives an amazing speech, in theory crafted by Welles himself, that lays out an incredibly dark worldview, one that supposes that the chaos and misery of war is what really drives human innovation. It’s an amazing moment in the film, and helps explain Harry perfectly. He doesn’t care that his greed has caused the death of numerous people. Because he’s here for chaos. He’s learned to thrive in chaos. He’s an outlaw who preys on the destructive nature of humanity for his own gain, treating the various factions of Vienna off one another for his own personal gain, creating a veritable smoke-screen of confusion to hide his own deeds. And the way that his character compares to Holly is fascinating. Holly writes pulp Westerns. His job is sitting around and telling stories of outlaws, horrible people who are riding around in the Wild West, solely caring about their own lives. And yet, when he comes across Harry, someone who actually personifies the type of character that Holly has built a career writing about, he can’t believe it. Because people like Harry shouldn’t exist. They should be creations of people like Holly, boogeymen for us to think about and be glad that they don’t actually exist. And yet, these people do exist. Humanity is unfortunately full of people like Harry Lime, people who could care less about the way their actions affect others. In American cinema the Hayes Code helped create a cinematic reality where people like Harry get comeuppance, punished as reminders to show us that living lives like his don’t pay. And, while Harry certainly does meet a deadly end, there’s something different about this film. A darker, more cynical look at the noir, showing us that while sometimes people like Harry Lime fail, sometimes they win. And there’s nothing we can do about it.
The Third Man was written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed, and released by British Lion Film Corporation & Selznick Releasing Organization, 1949.
Categories: Cinematic Century