Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Paul Hoerbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Hedwig Bleibtreu
Written by: Graham Greene, Alexander Korda, Carol Reed (uncredited), Orson Welles (uncredited)
Directed by: Carol Reed
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 104
Date: 08/31/1949

The Third Man (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lime Readings

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many associate The Third Man (1949) with Orson Welles' masterworks, and subsequently assume that he directed it. In fact Welles had little to do with it — he may have contributed a speech to the screenplay — but that so many believe this is a compliment to the film's style and timelessness. In the summer of 2015, The Third Man is playing in theaters in a glorious new, must-see 4K restoration.

Welles was in the middle of filming his brilliant Othello (1952), which required several breaks for fundraising, and he took The Third Man as an acting job for the money. He was given the option of taking a percentage of the profits after the film's release. Strapped for cash, Welles took the money up front. But The Third Man was the biggest hit Welles was ever associated with and he lost out on a large source of income. Like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Welles stretched a small amount of screen time into a starring role. It's such an accomplished performance that his character, Harry Lime, becomes the movie's most charming and memorable, despite the fact that he's a despicable villain. Nevertheless, he went on to do a Harry Lime radio show and the character was recycled again for a short-lived television series.

The actual leading characters in The Third Man are pulp Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and cabaret actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). It's just after WWII and Vienna is divided into four segments controlled by Russia, France, Great Britain, and the USA. Martins comes to town to meet his friend Lime who has promised him a job. Upon arriving Martins learns that Lime is dead. But the details of his death differ, depending on who tells the story. So Martins decides sticks around to find out what's going on, but doesn't count on falling in love with Lime's former flame, Schmidt.

Welles stands out in this movie not only because of his own dashing performance, but because Cotten's and Valli's characters, Martins and Schmidt, are so dreary. Martins is a dullard, frequently drunk, and not above being an informant. And Schmidt is in mourning the whole time we see her. So, when we meet Harry Lime it's like burst of birthday cake. He seems almost in color. After watching Martins slog through his own muddled definitions of right and wrong (generally mucking things up), Lime makes it all clear for us when he asks from atop that humongous ferris wheel, "if one of those little dots down there stopped moving, would it really matter to you?"

This movie is a mishmash of many different talents coming together in a way that seems magical. It has a distinctly European feel and a tone of sadness, depravity, and longing. It's a crime movie and a film noir, but it is punctuated by tiny bits of comedy. In general, The Third Man seems uncommon and unusual, unlike any other movie of its time, not only because of its exotic setting, but because of the several untranslated languages spoken in it.

The Third Man was directed by Englishman Carol Reed, who, despite making two other outstanding movies, Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948), was not one of the cinema's greatest visionaries. However, aided by his amazing crew, The Third Man was made with an extraordinarily atmospheric look to it, using tilted camera angles and the high-contrast climactic chase through Vienna's sewers (which could have been borrowed from a similar scene in Anthony Mann's He Walked by Night, made the previous year). A great deal of credit for this look goes to Robert Krasker, who won an Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography. The great screenplay was by the famous critic-turned-crime-author Graham Greene (who also subsequently published a novelization of his own script). But perhaps the most important ingredient is Anton Karas' Zither score. Audiences today may not be able to stomach the steely Zither sound, but back in 1949 and 1950 they were enthralled. The record of the music was a big seller and partially contributed to the movie's box office success.

I haven't yet mentioned actor Trevor Howard (Brief Encounter) who plays English police major Calloway as a decisive rock of moral assurance. The last time I saw The Third Man, his performance really struck me. He's a great center to the film. Now I've seen the film many more times, and it has proven a cohesive whole, a perfect coming together of all the right elements (like Casablanca), rather than the artistry of one visionary mind. But it is Welles you come away with and remember. And like watching one of Welles' own movies you feel like you've really seen something great.

The Criterion Collection issued The Third Man twice on DVD, and briefly on Blu-Ray before it became clear that they did not actually own the Blu-Ray rights for this title. (All three Criterions are now out of print.) Through a complex series of legal papers, the rights instead landed in Lionsgate's lap, and they have released their official Blu-Ray as of September, 2010. I wish I could vouch that it's the same transfer, but I never saw the Criterion version. (According to, it's slightly different.) The Lionsgate disc has different extras as well. It comes with a commentary track by Guy Hamilton (the assistant director), Welles biographer Simon Callow and script supervisor Angela Allen. Other extras include an interactive tour of Vienna, the radio show, audio interviews with Cotten and Greene, Cotten's alternate narration, an interview and Zither performance by Cornelia Mayer, stills and trailers. Unfortunately, it has no subtitles or captions.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the 2015 restoration, and whether it will be available in a Criterion edition. Stay tuned.

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