Why The Third Man remains as brilliant as ever

Carol Reed’s postwar mystery, available to stream from this week, wears its greatness lightly.

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One of the amazing things about The Third Man,” wrote Steven Soderbergh, “is that it really is a great film, in spite of all the people who say it’s a great film.” Carol Reed’s postwar mystery, available from this week on BFI Player, wears that greatness lightly, from Anton Karas’s perky zither score to the bop and bounce of Graham Greene’s dialogue. Released in 1949, the picture reunited Reed, Greene and the producer Alexander Korda a year after their heart-crushing thriller The Fallen Idol. Inspiration came from a few lines scribbled by Greene on an envelope: “I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.”

The producer’s nephew Michael Korda, later to become Greene’s editor at Simon & Schuster, recalled that his uncle was “thrilled with Graham’s tantalising opening” but asked that he switch the setting to Vienna. What Greene refers to in his script as “the smashed dreary city” was divided back then into four zones – American, British, French and Russian – so the film’s production, steeped in rubble, represented “a sort of reportage”, as Matthew Sweet put it in an episode of Radio 3’s Free Thinking broadcast last year (still available on BBC Sounds). Into this chaos, Greene pitches the pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), whose chum Harry Lime invites him to Vienna, fails to meet him off the train and then turns out inconveniently to be dead.

It’s an hour before we see with our own eyes that this isn’t the case, and another ten minutes after that before we hear Harry speak (though it’s more of a purr). Noël Coward had been mooted for the role, but the casting of Orson Welles adds a twist to Lime. He’s a baby-faced killer, like Richard Attenborough as Pinkie in the Boulting brothers’ film of Greene’s Brighton Rock, released a year earlier, though Harry’s lethal weapon is sneakier than the switchblade. He’s been getting rich flogging dodgy penicillin, as he explains to Holly from the Ferris wheel high above the Prater amusement park. It is here that he asks his friend whether he would really care if one of those dots on the ground far below stopped moving, just so long as it meant a tax-free pay-off in his pocket. Medicine, racketeering, powerful men weighing up how many “dots” they can spare: what a thoroughly modern story.

Not everyone was enamoured. The punchy critic Manny Farber considered the picture “over-elaborate” and complained that Robert Krasker’s tilted camera made him feel he had “seen the film from a foetal position”. William Wyler jokingly sent Reed a spirit level, but Martin Scorsese believed those “canted” shots were crucial in evoking “a world that’s come apart”.

Fans of the movie can be found hither – or rather, zither – and yon. Robert Altman borrowed the final shot, where Harry’s squeeze, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), strides along an avenue of desolate trees, for the ending of The Long Goodbye, which also tells of a credulous hero duped by a bad-penny pal. Vienna is the first port of call in Carry On Spying, where a zither plays as a cat slinks across wet cobblestones. Highlights include top-notch innuendo (“He tried to shoot me in the Schnitzelstrasse!”) and a scene in an Algerian brothel. “How many stars does it have?” someone asks. “No stars,” comes the reply, “but five exclamation marks.”

Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, as the murderous BFFs in Peter Jackson’s 1994 Heavenly Creatures, experience visions of Harry Lime after seeing The Third Man. The following year, the lovers played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise have their first kiss on that Ferris wheel where Holly and Harry joined the dots, then stroll past the doorway on Schreyvogelgasse where Harry’s shoes proved to be catnip for a kitten. (In 2008, Linklater made Me and Orson Welles, with Christian McKay whooping it up as the big man during his Mercury Theatre days.)

In Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, from 1974, Vienna looks dulled and depleted, as though it just came to after a heavy night. This faintly ludicrous but troubling study of the torrid sexual relationship between a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) and a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) was the last film I saw with an audience before cinemas closed in March. Of all the titles mentioned above, Cavani’s picture is the most elusive for UK viewers. It surfaces illegally online every so often before vanishing back into the shadows. Now you see it, now you don’t, a bit like Harry Lime. 

“The Third Man” is streaming now on BFI Player

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 29 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak

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