Vienna, 1949. Armed forces are fighting a new war against greed, opportunity and the black market. Into this world stumbles pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) in search of his friend, Harry Lime. Soon Holly is investigating Lime’s death, meeting his complex coterie of collaborators and trying to understand a world of shadows and lies.
The Third Man was the result of a collaboration perhaps even more complex than those depicted on-screen. A talented cast and crew were assembled in Vienna by British director Carol Reed and American producer David O’Selznick. It was the first British feature film to be shot largely on location, amongst the rubble of wartorn Vienna.
Using real locals as extras, the production team’s efforts ensured that Greene’s script was transformed from something individual into something unique.
The film starts as it means to go on: brisk, uncompromising and with a dash of gallows humour. Cinematographer Robert Krasker’s canted camera angles emphasise tonal shifts while director Carol Reed’s introduction of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – a long shot then the reveal of that smirking, boyish face – is textbook enigmatic.
Though character motives can be oblique, the moral blacks and greys that permeate the film are encapsulated by Lime’s frighteningly-reasoned Prater Wheel speech. With a near faultless script, this is a treatise on motives forged in harsh times, a view of post-Holocaust Europe forever preserved in the aspic of film.
Finally, as Lime makes his escape, the city itself turns against him, drawing him into the sewers. However, Welles exudes such charisma in his too-brief screen time that on each viewing I still hope one day he’ll head up that street over there instead, run that bit faster, second guess those Limey flatfoots just this once. Maybe one day he will.
This 2-disc Region 2 edition includes a fantastic 90-minute documentary screened on BBC4 a few years back. Seeing the Vienna locations today, scenes from the film projected onto them, is slightly eerie, as if some giant tattoo has been imprinted on the skin of the city. An alternate opening narration and a few trailers round off the disc.
If you can afford it, it’ worth checking out the new Region 1 Criterion 2-discer instead. Lots of great extras, including a Steven Soderbergh commentary, make it a Third Man fan must-buy. One day…