Third Man, The (1949)

The Third Man (1949), produced and directed by Carol Reed.

As an off-kilter, darkly comic political thriller, there is really nothing to match this. Bold filmmaking with the tilted camera angles, untranslated dialogue and wild zither score, clueing us that we are in a strange place.

Our hero, hapless Holly Martins as played by Joseph Cotton, is something of a dope. He thinks of himself as being in one of his pulp western novels. He blunders into a tangled web of crime and politics and expects to get his way with blustering demands. He meets his dead friend's girl at the funeral and figures he had better fall in love with her. When frustrated he mopes and drinks. He knows Harry has been an operator from an early age (would he be a "player" these days?) but can't conceive that his friend has become a criminal.

It's funny except when it's not. Holly causes some deaths and the prospect of seeing Anna deported East is wrenching.

I can't avoid a political interpretation: the common belief among educated Englishmen like Graham Greene is that Britain must play the wily Greek to America's strong but naive and somewhat dim Roman. The wise men of the Old World provide the geopolitical cunning, the New World supplies the money and muscle. Churchill: "You can rely on America to do the right thing after having exhausted all other possibilities."

Which is what Holly finally does in the end: the right thing.

Of course, there is another type of uncalculating loyalty besides the blundering of an innocent abroad: the woman who loves Harry won't betray him, no matter what he has done.

I noticed many little things this time, for example:

Great cast. From this and The Paradine Case (1947), Alida Valli owns the dark mysterious woman roles. The way she is used as a bargaining chip in the game of crime and politics: it breaks our hearts. You can tell that Callaway, hardened as he is, doesn't like doing it.

I also love tough but pleasant Sgt Paine, played by Bernard Lee, later "M" in the early James Bond films.

Orson Welles is, of course, the quick, affable but amoral spider at the center of the web. He has only few minutes on screen but it is his best role. They had a terrible time getting him to show up for filming.

You couldn't have this film without the ruin of post-war Vienna. Some of it is shot on sets, but they couldn't have been constructed without an intimate knowledge of the actual city. Rubble looks alarmingly lovely in black-and-white movies: the texture and shadows.

The score is a single instrument: that crazed, jangling zither. It would be a different film without it. I'm astonished the studio allowed it.

Finally: Do we presume that one of the black marketeers was murdered so that Harry could disappear? What was the "job" Harry offered Holly? (...thinking...) Did it involve becoming a corpse? That's a dark thought.

Early Criterion Blu-ray, long out of print and expensive on the used market. Netflix still lists it, and after months of "Very Long Wait" in the #1 slot in my queue, I got it. I was expecting something scratched and about to be withdrawn, but it was a pristine copy.

Studio Canal also has this on Blu-ray, but the image is said to be not as good. See the DVDBeaver comparison.

Detail is mostly good; the black levels fluctuate in spots.

Many extras, including two enthusiastic audio commentaries: (1) directors Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy admiring the filmmaking craft, and (2) a more academic film scholar. He finds many quotes of other films and even self-references to the making of the film itself. Like a lot of lit-crit people he can find endless correspondences.

Soderbergh's comment on the final scene: "Each time I see it I expect her to at least look at him when passing by. But no: she always just walks on."