Revisiting the The Third Man – The Best Film of the 1940’s

“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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. “

More so than any other decade in the brief history of film, the 1940’s showed that with great tribulation came great inspiration.

Behold the following cinematic masterpieces created amidst a world at war:  Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, Bicycle Thieves, Double Indemnity, Shadow of a Doubt.

In any given year in any given decade any one of these films could easily top anyone’s list.  Some of them are routinely bantered about as the greatest film of all time.

And then there is…THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME.

THE THIRD MAN.

If the 2000’s were emblematic of my generation, and the 1970’s belonged to the generation of my parents…then the 1940’s were where my grandparents’ generation left their indelible mark:  the decade of the Greatest Generation that clawed their way out of the Great Depression to rise triumphant out of the calamity of World War II.  Film mirrored this struggle with tales that showed the human condition is made up of trouble every day.  We saw some of the greatest book to film adaptations ever with David Lean’s Oliver Twist and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.  Speaking of wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer delivered his bewitching Day of Wrath, while Hitchcock produced the film closest to his heart and mine, Shadow of a Doubt.  Clouzot was going tete-a-tete with Hitch across the pond in his native France with the allegorical Le Corbeau and the wildly entertaining police procedural Quai des Orfevres while the Italians were rising from the ashes with their neo-realism movement marked by De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Rossellini’s Rome Open City.

And beyond briefly mentioning, I haven’t even touched on Casablanca and Citizen Kane, two films deserving of their own full write-ups and tributes.   Yet even those films don’t hold a candle to Carol Reed’s descent into GreeneLand and ascent into film history.

“You were born to be murdered.”

In preparation for this retrospective on arguably the greatest decade for film, I re-watched The Third Man, and I have come to the conclusion that it is the greatest film ever made.  Like the greatest of its screenwriter Graham Greene’s novels, it bridges that chasm between art and entertainment, between style and substance, between character and plot, story and structure.  And it’s perfect.  Larger than that, it marks the pinnacle of one of filmdom’s most popular movements – Film Noir, which began in the 1930’s and would continue into the 1950’s, but reached its peak here in 1949 when Carol Reed took crooked angles, shadows and light, cobblestone streets and smoke and along with cinematographer Robert Krasker delivered shot after shot after shot that could stand alone against the greatest black-and-white photography ever captured.  Beyond that, the film bridged the gap between the strung-out double-crossings of the post WWII-ravaged landscape and the Cold War Era paranoia that would define the films of the 1950’s.

“I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.”

The Third Man is a film that could never be remade.  It exists alone, perfectly in a pocket of time.  Never again will there be that perfect storm of trouble between the end of WWII and the start of the Cold War.  Never again will there be a writer like Graham Greene.  Never again will there be a director like Carol Reed who was able to coalesce into one all of the elements that make a film so memorable and unique…a foursome of unforgettable lead characters, performances of a life-time, music and sound and imagery and a setting (Vienna, cracked into four) that could never be recreated.  From the opening montage painting that picture of Vienna’s black-markets (containing one of the most haunting voice-over shots in film – where the narrator remarks that such nefarious activities unfortunately tempt amateurs while we see a body floating face-down in shallow water amidst a bombed-out cityscape) to the anti-romantic closing shot of Alida Valli (the ultimate anti-femme fatale) walking past Joseph Cotten, who lights a cigarette as she passes, the last leaves falling off naked trees – The Third Man is completely exhilarating.

“Goodness that’s awkward.”

It’s a labyrinthine mystery.  It’s a rip-snorting thriller.  It’s a wicked black comedy.  It’s noir at its best.  It’s film as it should be – entertaining and artistic.  It’s full of endlessly quotable dialogue, haunting performances, snappy writing, brilliant direction and a music score like no other.

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It’s hard to believe it’s only been a little over three years since I first saw The Third Man.  I feel like we’ve become the oldest and best of friends.  Though I may have reiterated much of what first came to mind above, here is my original review, unabridged, as originally published here at The Spin on the IMDB:

The Trouble with Harry Lime
10/10

I initially felt a fool for not having seen The Third Man earlier. However, in retrospect, having now read most of Graham Greene’s major works, and having received some keen insight into the back-story of producer Alexander Korda through Kati Marton’s book The Great Escape, I feel I was able to enjoy The Third Man even more for the staggering masterpiece that it is.

As a European/American co-production bankrolled by two legendary hands-on producers, David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, The Third Man was masterfully crafted by director Carol Reed from a screenplay by British novelist Graham Greene. The film served as a pinnacle of the film noir movement and is a prime example of master filmmakers working with an iconic writer and utilizing an amazing cast and crew to create a masterwork representing professionals across the field operating at the top of their game.

Fans of Greene’s novels need not be disappointed as the screenplay crackles with all that signature cynicism and sharp witted dialogue. Carol Reed’s crooked camera angles, moody use of shadowing and external locations (Vienna, partially bombed out, wet and Gothic, never looked more looming and haunting) and crisp editing are the perfect visual realizations of Greene’s provocative wordplay and often saturnine view of the world. Reed’s brief opening montage and voice-over introducing us to the black market in Vienna is also shockingly modern, as it is that energetic quick-cut editing that has influenced directors like Scorsese to film entire motion pictures in just such a style. Also making the film decidedly timeless is the zither music score of Anton Karas, a bizarre accompaniment to the dark story that serves as a brilliant contradiction to what is being seen on screen.

The story of The Third Man slides along like smooth gin down the back of one’s throat as characters, plot and mood meander and brood along cobblestone streets and slither down dark alleys in an intoxicated state. Heavy drinking hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, doing an excellent Americanized riff on Graham Greene himself) arrives in post WWII occupied Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that Lime is reportedly dead, the police (headed by a perfectly cold Trevor Howard) don’t seem to care, and Lime’s charming broken-hearted mistress (Alida Valli, perfect as another Greene archetype) has been left behind. Of course, Martins can’t leave well enough alone as conspiracy, murder, unrequited romance, and political intrigue ensue. Welles benefits greatly from being talked about for most of the film and appearing mostly in shadows spare for two scenes: the famous ferris wheel speech, and a climatic chase beneath the streets of Vienna through Gothic sewers. His top hap, dark suit, and crooked smile are the stuff of film legend.

The side characters, however, are what make The Third Man such a rich, rewarding experience. We’re treated to small glimpses into the mindsets of varying people ranging from a British officer obsessed with American Western dime-store novels (of which Martins claims his fame) to an Austrian landlady eternally wrapped in a quilt going on and on in her foreign tongue as international police constantly raid her building and harass her tenants. The brilliance is that one needs no subtitles to understand her frustration. These added layers of character and thoughtful detail, hallmarks of Greene, set The Third Man in a class above the rest of film noir from the late 1940′s era.

Make no mistake, The Third Man is arguably one of the most finely crafted films ever made. One’s preference towards noir and Greene’s world-view will shape how much one actually enjoys the film. For the sheer fact it has held up so well over the decades and has clearly influenced so many great films that came after it, its repeated rankings as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made can not be denied. With a good stiff drink in hand, and Graham Greene’s collection dog-eared on my bookshelf, The Third Man is undoubtedly now one of my favorite films. Reed’s closing shot of a tree-lined street along a cemetery and Joseph Cotten leaning against a car smoking a cigarette while Alida Valli walks right past him with that zither music score playing is one that has left an indelible mark on my memory and enriched my love of film as art.

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When looking over my favorite films from the 1940’s, I realized I had a list of 20 films.  As such, unlike the 1950’s and 1960’s, where I simply listed honorable mentions in chronological order, I have decided to rank the 20 films from the 1940’s.

  1. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
  2. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
  3. Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
  5. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio de Sica)
  6. Double Indemnity (1946, Billy Wilder)
  7. Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  8. Quai des Orfevres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
  9. Rome Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)
  10. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  11. Thieves’ Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)
  12. Oliver Twist (1948, David Lean)
  13. How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)
  14. Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
  15. Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock)
  16. The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin)
  17. The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)
  18. Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang)
  19. Ministry of Fear (1944, Fritz Lang)
  20. Saboteur (1942, Alfred Hitchcock)

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Check out The Spin’s previous retrospectives:

And of course, here is my My Favorite Films Archive.

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What are your favorite films from the 1940′s?  Start the debate in the comment form.

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12 comments on “Revisiting the The Third Man – The Best Film of the 1940’s

  1. For those who have not seen The Third Man yet here is a cleverly modern trailer from Turner Classic Films. If this doesn’t convince you to watch it, nothing will.

    • I came down here to comment on your review, which was excellent, although I’m not sure I agree it was the film of that decade.

      But then I caught this trailer and I lost what I was going to say!

      Thank you for sharing this… Now, everybody can talk all they want about the comparitive merits between older films and todays films… but one thing I will say is CERTAIN. Trailers today destroy old trailers. NO CONTEST. The art of making previews for movies has absolutely left old trailers in the dust. Its like a Van Gogh compared to a kindergartener’s crayon scrabbles.

      Thanks again. I enjoyed your write up AND this trailer!

      Thanks for stopping by. I agree, for the most part, with what you say about the art of movie trailers – though there is an alarming trend in recent years to reveal the entire movie in the trailer. I think when directors (the true auteurs) take part in creating the trailers (as with Nolan, Fincher and PT Anderson films) – you get some really great stuff. –DHS

  2. Since there are too few films from the 1920’s and 1930’s that I have seen (though I have my clear favorites from each decade – Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc from the ‘20’s and Fritz Lang’s M from the ’30’s) this will probably be the final decade I look back on here at The Spin. Though hardly scientific, I thought it would be fun to rank the decades I did retrospectives on and would invite others to do the same:

    1. 1940’s
    2. 1970’s
    3. 2000’s
    4. 1990’s
    5. 1950’s
    6. 1980’s
    7. 1960’s

  3. Will says:

    David,

    Great piece! I’ve long been a huge fan of this film, and can’t disagree with anything you said. Reed was certainly not a one hit wonder, but there was nothing that he did before or after The Third Man, in my opinion, (including The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out) that would have prepared audiences, then and now, for the greatness this film delivered, which I find fascinating. It’s comparable to the Beach Boys releasing Car Crazy Cutie and then immediately following it up with Good Vibrations, which didn’t happen, but you get the point. The Fallen Idol showed flashes of greatness, but while it occupies an earthly realm, The Third Man is otherworldly brilliant and completely unexpected.

    I believe the only thing that keeps The Third Man from occupying that coveted position of greatest film ever, at least in the minds of the all-knowing critics who compose those top 100 lists, such as AFI, (sadly, it was one of 23 films removed from their list in 2007) is what some have argued is the absence of depth in the film – e.g., that it’s not as psychologically compelling as Vertigo, or as important as Schindler’s List.

    My position is that films exist mainly to entertain, to tell a story, and it does that with more panache and skill that just about anything ever committed to celluloid. It deserves much more acclaim than it has received.

    Keep up the great work!

    Will – wonderfully said, sir – and thanks for the great comment! I couldn’t agree with you more. Those who argue the film has no depth are fools, of course. The psychological complexity of the setting alone is astounding, and then when you overlay finely detailed characters and plot – the layers of complexity rival any of the other greatest films. I mean this is Graham Greene, not some hack screenwriter, we are talking about here. This film is just as “deep” as any of his finest novels. –DHS

  4. Arti says:

    This is an impressive post outlining the history of film. I’ve always wanted to catch up on some of these great classics, and I admit, The Third Man is one of those on top of my list. The video clip you’ve posted here shows some fantastic b/w cinematography. You’ve also mentioned Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Fritz Lang’s M, those two are true classics which are inimitable. And, thanks for the Best 20 List, a convenient reference for me to catch up, albeit I’ve seen a few of them and my all time fave is in it. Yes, I’ve to say for me, it’s Casablanca.

    Arti – you absolutely have to watch The Third Man sooner rather than later. Ah….Casablanca…so much great dialogue in that film. My favorite is “I’d like to think you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me.” That movie always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. –DHS

  5. ccyager says:

    Outstanding post, David! Your passion for this movie is in every word. It’s a favorite of mine, too, for all the reasons you mention and then one more: it’s the only film of what post-war Vienna was truly like, filmed on location, at a time when Vienna was still divided (the Russians wouldn’t leave until 1952) among the allies. I have walked those streets myself, actually, but years later, so it’s always a bit disconcerting for me to watch this movie and see a city I love so much in such devastation. If it’s difficult obtaining the necessary permits for filming on location in a major city like Vienna, imagine having to do it when there are four different administrations to deal with!

    My favorite moment? Of course. Harry Lime’s first appearance. It’s a classic in screenwriting as well as every other aspect of filmmaking.

    Cinda – great point about shooting in Vienna. I had never even thought about how hard that location shooting must’ve been – and what a unique and haunting time capsule of the city they created. –DHS

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    David—

    I have long known of your incomparable love for this film masterpiece and for author Greene. Anton Karas’ zither music is a powerful agent, as is Robert Krasker’s cinematography, buffo direction from Carol Reed, and those unforgettable performances. It all adds up to a timeless film that is my personal favorite British film of all time.

    You have delivered the goods as I well knew you would.

    Sam – thanks! I knew this was your favorite British film, but now I’m wondering – what is your favorite American film of all time? –DHS

  7. Though I don’t agree with everything you say, I do agree that The Third Man is a masterpiece. I love both the movies of Carol Reed and the books of Graham Greene and their talents combine to make a great movie. I don’t think it’s the best movie ever made, but I wouldn’t argue too much against anyone who takes that position. It’s certainly worthy to be considered as such.

    And as for your non-scientific ranking of the decades, I think mine would shake out something like this:
    1.) 1930s
    2.) 1920s
    3.) 1950s
    4.) 1970s
    5.) 1940s
    6.) 1990s
    7.) 1980s
    8.) 2000s
    9.) 1960s (What a terrible decade for movies – blech)

    And as of now my favorite movies of the 1940s are The Bicycle Thief and Double Indemnity with Day of Wrath close behind. The Third Man is in the mix with Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Sullivan’s Travels after that. I’m sure I’ll have a better grasp of the decade when I finish the 1940s at my own blog.

    Jason – LMAO – yeah, what is it about the 1960’s that were so lousy for films? Spare for a handful of movies, I can’t even say I liked that many movies from that decade let alone loved (though we all know my love for Kubrick’s 2001). And then boom – what an explosion of awesomeness in the 1970’s. –DHS

  8. UPDATE: My Third Man commentary and best of the 1940’s list was recently re-published in the premier issue of LitNoir available for only 99 cents through the Kindle App:

  9. Perfect is right. My thought regarding raison d’etre is that anyone who could create a work of art so perfect as the movie, The Third Man, the book, Seabiscuit, or any painting by Bouguereau, would have fairly justified his or her reason for being.

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