A Review of Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”

CAPTION:  In 1949, this Valli was located in GreeneLand.

CAPTION:  In the best of film noir, a viewer can actually feel the dampness and breathe in the darkness.

The Trouble with Harry Lime, 1 April 2008
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

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.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:


CAPTION:  On the outside Joseph Cotten is as cool as cucumber, but on the inside, the hopeless romantic screams at Alida Valli, “Don’t walk away!”


Twelve Months Buried in the Pages…

As a writer one of the most common questions I get is “what do you like to read?”  I typically read five to ten books a year.  I always like to have a collection of short stories on hand as they serve as great inspiration before writing sessions. In the past I’ve spent many months (in some cases, depending on how thick the volume, over a year) with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Beattie, Russell Banks, and Shirley Jackson—all of them short story masters. I feel you really get to know a writer when you settle down for a long tenure with their short stories that are often more varied and daring in topic and plot than their novels or other forms. When it comes to full length books, I tend to lean more towards nonfiction (a habit I picked up from mandatory reading in college) with history and psychology being my favorite topics.  When it comes to novels, I like to keep up to speed with the competition and typically read contemporary best sellers or the occasional literary classic.

Below is a run down of what I read during the last twelve months (done in an end of the year awards show fashion).

The Great Escape by Kati Marton
Marton’s book is a fascinatingly detailed and lovingly researched look at a group of Hungarian Jews who escaped their homeland just before the Holocaust and went on to do amazing things while living in exile (among them renowned scientists Edward Teller and John Von Neumann, film makers Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda, photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, and writer Arthur Koestler).  Marton’s vivid descriptions of Budapest during its golden era at the turn of the twentieth century and the harrowing times of fascism that followed make you feel like you were there with these amazing survivors. She shows a great respect for the people and places she depicts. This is a must read for any person of Hungarian heritage and WWII/Holocaust buffs, but also for movie lovers, as it discusses the lives of two of the most influential film makers from that time period; Korda who produced The Third Man and Curtiz who directed Casablanca. It also goes into detail how famed war-photographer Robert Capa’s tortured romance with international movie star Ingrid Bergman inspired Alfred Hitchcock to create the seminal characters for his classic suspense film Rear Window.

Whispers: The Voices of Paranoia by Ronald K. Siegel
Whispers is an uncompromised series of case studies involving severely paranoid patients.  Due to the fact that many are paranoid from excessive drug use, there’s often a sarcastic, cold, and detached narration to the stories.  The descriptions of insect infestation hallucinations are particularly graphic, but also darkly humorous.  This is a must read for those studying abnormal psychology.

Love & Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price
Love & Hate is a vividly detailed and meticulously researched account of the early years of the Jamestown settlement, the life of John Smith, and the legend of Pocahontas.  I came across an add for this while writing my review of Terrence Malick’s movie on the same subject, The New World, on the Internet Movie Database.  I had to have it, and loved every interesting tidbit of history and fact it provided.

The Complete Short Stories of Graham Greene
Best known for his novels (The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, The Power and the Glory) or his film treatment for the The Third Man, Greene was also a master of the short story form.  He’s one of my favorite writers and he’s quite astute in discussing religion, politics, spying, bourgeois guilt and ennui, and pragmatic romances.  This is a rather large collection, close to 50 stories, and with the reading of about one story a week, it has found what seems like a permanent place on my coffee table.  My favorites from the collection are “The Basement Room,” “The Blue Film,” “The Little Place off Edgeware Road,” “The Innocent,” “Across the Bridge,” “A Drive in the Country,” and “Cheap in August.”

The Ruins by Scott Smith
The Ruins is disappointing popular fiction of the most abhorrent kind. Don’t get me wrong, Smith is a decent enough writer and this was a page-turner in the sense that he was crafty enough to trick me into thinking this was going to lead somewhere. His tale of a group of college-age pals getting trapped on a hill in the middle of a Mexican hell plays out like Hostel meets Day of the Triffids. And that’s the major problem: this seems more inspired by recent horror movies and films in general than by anything of literary merit. There’s some really gross-out stuff, and some sustained suspense, but it all becomes extremely repetitive, and the characters grow more and more unlikable with each unbelievable twist, and the whole book literally leads nowhere. Nothing is explained. No interesting plot point is explored (even Stephen King would’ve known to make something out of the second mind shaft and where that might’ve lead or given some flashbacks to the archaeologists or some sense of history behind this horrible place), and, hell, there aren’t even any god-damned ruins! Avoid at all costs. It’s worse than the worst Stephen King book, and not half as clever in its central conceit as the recent horribly-written mega-stinker The DaVinci Code.

So what am I reading now?  Once I’m done devouring the short stories of Graham Greene, I look forward to stalking the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut (a much slimmer volume).  I’m also currently leafing through Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch (yes, the film director).  Lynch takes a look at how transcendental meditation has influenced his film making, art, and life in general.  I can only recommend it to those with a big interest in meditation (I prefer sleep to meditation), or those who love anything that has to do with the enigmatic Lynch (count me in!) The best line thus far from the book is page 115, Lynch’s one page chapter on the explanation of the box and the key in Mulholland Drive, and I quote “I don’t have a clue what those are.” I laughed out loud for a good minute.

Written by David H. Schleicher