Theaters: September 1949
Streaming: November 1999
Runtime: 93-108 minutes
Genre: Classic – Crime – Drama – Film Noir – Mystery – Suspense – Thriller
Amazon: 4.2/5 stars
Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 9.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Audience: 4.3/5
Metacritic Metascore: NA/100
Metacritic User Score: NA/10
Awards: 1 Oscar
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Graham Greene (screenplay and book)
Music by: Anton Karas
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard, Orson Wells, Alida Valli
Film Locations: Austria, UK
Worldwide Box Office: $618,173
Holly Martins (Cotton), an American writer of 3rd rate westerns, broke and drunk more often than not, is invited to post-WWII Vienna by his old friend Harry Limes (Welles). Martins arrives in Vienna in time to witness Limes’ funeral. Martins begins to ask around about the death of his friend and slowly becomes suspicious that the official account of his death, a traffic accident, is cover for a murder. Martins, an innocent fool, sets out to discover the truth about his friend’s death, stumbling through a city filled with experienced cynics, thugs, and kriminelle.
Nazi Germany annexed Austria, known as Anschluss Oesterreichs, in March 1938 with significant support of the Austrian public. In 1943 the Allied powers; Britain, France, US, and the USSR, agreed to nullify the German annexation and have it revert back to an independent country at the end of the war. The Allies, in 1945, divided Austria and Vienna into 4 sectors with each sector controlled by one of the 4 powers. This arrangement was to last until 1955 when the country agreed to maintain eternal neutrality. The allied powers initially stationed 260,000 troops in the country after 1945, which was entirely paid for by the Austrian people. The cost of the occupation coupled with the war-destroyed industries and poor harvests lead to wide-spread hunger, lack of heating for homes and businesses, and unemployment. The post-war years of 1945-46, with little in the way of an Austrian police force, saw crime spiral out of control with Soviet troops responsible for 90% of all reported crimes. The underground economy flourished with little or no regulation or oversight.
Graham Greene, considered as the greatest English writer of the 20th century and with the publication of his 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, cemented his reputation as one of the best writers of his generation. Early in life he joined the communist party and a few years later converted to Catholicism. He initially wrote a short novel for The Third Man, not intending to publish it, but to provide background for the screenplay. The novella was eventually published under the same name as the movie, The Third Man in 1950. The book is not very good, basically because it is in an unfinished state. Ignore the book and watch the movie. Greene, in 1948, personally researched the book and screenplay by exploring the streets, nightclubs, and sewers of Vienna along with immersing himself into the clandestine black-markets within the city.
A pedestrian movie filmed in Vienna would require a musical score relying heavily on orchestral waltzes with dance scenes showing gay Venetians circling the glossy dance floors of resplendent Viennese palaces. Well this movie isn’t pedestrian by any means; no waltzes, no orchestras, and no palaces make an appearance. The entire score is delivered by a single instrument; the Zither, a multi-stringed, wooden instrument played either in an upright position or laid flat on one’s lap. The movie opens with the Anton Karas playing an instrumental on a Zither. It is initially foreign and harsh to the ear but as the movie progresses you warm to its sound and melody, eventually succumbing to its hypnotic effects, realizing in the end that no other musical approach or sound would have worked.
Carol Reed took Greene’s ok screenplay and transformed it into the greatest British film ever made. The black and white scenes of mountainous mounds of Viennese bombed rubble, the back-lit monstrous shadows, tilted horizons that change the normal perspective to an austere strangeness fitting of the black undertones of the movie; effects that add to the downbeat story of innocence lost in the harsh glare of a crooked reality. The movie begins and ends with a funeral, letting you know that the only happiness you will find in post-war Vienna comes with death: death of desire, death of devotion, death of decency.
The acting in this movie is superb. Joseph Cotton’s innocence, Trevor Howard’s natural stoic acceptance of a world gone bad, Alida Valli’s stubborn attachment to love, but its Orson Welles that stands out as the films larger than life anti-hero. An auteur with only acting credits in this movie, but he still insists on bringing along his own style, ad-libbing his lines when it suited him, inserting one of the most memorable lines in the movie:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
It doesn’t really matter that it was the German’s who invented cuckoo clocks and the Swiss were content with being bankers, sans the Hapsburgs, and providing mercenaries to the other European powers’ wars.
This is a movie you need to add to your “Must Watch in My Lifetime” list.