Should we be starting our month of reviews and analyses of Orson Welles films with a movie that Orson Welles didn’t write, didn’t direct, and didn’t even show up on screen in until the movie was nearly over? Probably not but in addition to being Orson Welles Month, it’s Noirvember, and we’re going to lead with our “The Third Man” article anyways. Do not read ahead if you aren’t already familiar with the ending of the film. It would be impossible to talk about the film during Orson Welles Month without mentioning the ending, so we can’t avoid spoilers as we can in most of our Great Film segments.
“The Third Man” directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene is perhaps the greatest of the British film noirs and a near perfect film that is as enduring and iconic today as it was nearly 70 years ago when it was first released, in large part because Reed fought the producers on everything from filming location to casting Orson Welles to the ending of the film.
The film opens with a narrator describing the postwar Vienna setting of the film, with its four sectors, each having less than reputable authorities, each having been decimated by the tragedy of war, and each being ravaged by immoral opportunists seeking fortune. Though the prologue has no doubt always been greatly important to setting the scene of the movie and introducing the themes and plot lines that permeate the runtime, as the world moves ever more distant from the Second World War and (thankfully) fewer people experience cities decimated by war, it becomes a more vital part of the exposition, without which modern audiences would be unable to fully enter the world of postwar Vienna. Though the time difference is large, the narrator and the audience still share the same perception of Vienna for, as we find out in the opening line, neither the narrator nor the viewer ever knew Vienna before the war (unless of course you happen to have visited the city 80 years ago) and even if you visit Vienna today, you will likely experience, as I have, that as much as Vienna has been reconstructed and returned to its former glory, the shadow of the city left by the war has never truly left and a sideways glimpse down an alley can be enough to leave you thinking nothing has changed since the days when “The Third Man” was filmed on those very same rubble laden streets.
Following the opening narration, we are introduced to the alcoholic writer of pulp novels, Holly Martins, played by the brilliant Joseph Cotton whose openness is integral to the film and greatly contrasts every other performance as the only decent man in the city. In a genius stroke of filmmaking, many shots are as crooked as the characters,. Holly has come to the city in search of a job offered to him by his college pal Harry Lime only to find Harry was killed just prior to his arrival. This prompts Holly to begin a search into the web of lies and half truths told by all who knew Harry to determine how Harry Lime truly died. Most notably, Holly meets Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, a stone cold Alida Valli, and becomes infatuated with her despite her seemingly limitless devotion to Harry. By the time Holly finally pieces everything together and Orson Welles first appears on screen the movie is almost complete and even on a third or fourth viewing you can almost forget the Welles is even in the movie but when he appears he takes the film and runs away with it first with an iconic introduction, as his smirking face appears on screen momentarily before he runs off into the shadows, then with one of the greatest speeches ever put to film as he attempts to justify his crimes by explaining the necessity of bloodshed and seemingly threatens Holly’s life, both with such charm and sincerity that he’s almost convincing. According to Graham Greene, Welles wrote the speech himself which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with his work, but it may be the greatest piece of screenplay he penned, surpassing even anything in “Citizen Kane”. Like many of the films that Welles wrote, the central struggle of the film deals with betrayal as Welles’s Harry Lime betrays not only his friend Holly Martins but also all of humanity in the faking of his own death and killing of innocent people to make a fortune and this may have allowed Welles to draw on performances in his past movies to create someone so charismatic yet terrifying.
Much of the beauty of “The Third Man” comes from the fact that, even to a greater extent than other noirs, it is permeated with a sense of gloominess. The half destroyed, bombed out streets of Vienna, beautifully shown with high contrasts between light and dark leaving no room for the grey areas that incidentally define the story, force the viewer into a desolate urban environment. The famous score, played entirely on a concert zither, can seem almost upbeat at times but on closer listening and observation, it is a depressing and haunting tune that perfectly encapsulates the struggle of dealing with the death of a friend and the greed that would drive one to kill for money. The most prominent setting, the sewers, continue the theme as the final showdown occurs in a dirty area associated with urban seediness and, though good triumphs at the end, it is not a cause for celebration. Finally, the ending of the film, as Holly stands at the cemetery where the story began waiting for Anna having passed on a ride back to town, stretches on seemingly for an eternity as we see Anna pass by without heed to Holly Martin and continue to walk out of his life and we wait for some resolution that never comes and settle into a state of exhaustion alongside Holly.
The film is truly one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces and though Welles didn’t direct it, his performance in it is his best and most enduring.
It is presently available on Netflix and we highly recommend you check it out!
Thanks for reading!