erik lundegaard


The Third Man (1949)

In his introduction to the DVD version of The Third Man, noted director and film historian Peter Bogdonavich twice evokes Casablanca, saying actress Alida Valli was at her most "Bergmany" here and calling both films "happy accidents."

Written by:
Graham Greene
Alexander Korda
Carol Reed
Orson Welles

Directed by:
Carol Reed

Joseph Cotton
Alida Valli
Orson Welles
Trevor Howard
Paul Hoerbiger
Ernest Deutsch
Erich Ponto

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director
Best Film Editing

Academy Awards:
Best Cinematography

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

Let me continue this evocation. Joseph Cotton's character, the pulp western writer Holly Martins, has always struck me as the anti-Humphrey Bogart. In his World War II films (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not), Bogie tended to play Americans abroad who were smarter, tougher and sexier than the defeated Europeans around him. He didn't want to get involved but invariably did. He embodied America's romantic image of itself: isolationist, but tough and with a heart, and thus, when duty calls, interventionist.Let's drag Europe's ass out of the fire one more time was generally the subtext.

Holly Martins, a British creation of an American, is less idyllic. He's a writer but of pulp westerns. He drinks too much but can't fight. He's not smart or articulate. He arrives in Vienna to visit his friend, Harry Lime, but discovers Harry's been killed in a car accident. Or was it an accident? He decides to stick around to find out more, even though everyone tells him he should leave. "You shouldn't get mixed up in this," Harry's girl, Anna Schmidt (Valli) tells him. Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is more direct. "Go home, Martins," he says dismissively. There are secrets everywhere, faces peering from windows and down side streets. No one wants to get involved. It's an old convention — everyone urging the hero away from the truth — but this time they're right. Martins is a bumbler, a fool. He tries to romance Anna, to help her forget Harry, but his presence merely reminds her of Harry and he gets nowhere with her. He tries to prove that Harry was killed and instead discovers that Harry killed. In the end, his search for the murderer of Harry Lime leads, alley-oop, back to himself.

All of which is brilliant. The film begins with the funeral of Harry Lime and ends with the funeral of Harry Lime. The dialogue is sharp and snappy, the secondary characters distinct and fascinating. Which is my favorite? Wilfrid Hyde-White's Crabbin, who assumes every writer is highbrow and intellectual, and who demonstrates a pained embarrassment for Martins at his post-lecture Q&A? Bernard Lee's ever-polite tough guy, Sergeant Paine? It's a tough call, but this viewing anyway I loved the Porter. Paul Hoerbiger has a great face, a great accent. His mix of German and English (which apparently he didn't speak) is priceless. When he informs Martins that Harry has been killed, he says, "Already in hell," and points up. Then with a shrug, "Or in," and points down, "heaven."

The film is full of nice touches like this. Winkel vs. Vinkel. Blowing the dust off the lamp. Anna playing with dice during a phone call. When she first meets Martins, she tells him, "I don't know anything anymore except I want to be dead, too. Some more tea?" When Harry's criminal past has been revealed, Martins asks her, "Do you suppose he was laughing at fools like us the whole time?" and she smiles sadly. "He liked to laugh," she says nostalgically. Then of course there's Orson Welles as Harry Lime. Revealed, he's smug, almost delighted. See how smart I am, old chap? He charms us one moment, frightens us the next. He adds energy and charisma. It's pure joy to watch Welles at work here.

I haven't even mentioned Carol Reed's direction, with its mix of long shots and close-ups, and the luminescent black-and-white photography which garnered cinematographer Robert Krasker the film's only Academy Award, and the gorgegous, intricate architecture of Vienna giving way to bombed-out rubble, and the wonderful zither soundtrack from Anton Karas. No, I haven't done justice to this great, great movie.

Roger Ebert calls The Third Man one of the 10 greatest films ever made. I agree.

—February 24, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard