It’s always a joy to see a British picture triumph at the US-centric Academy Awards even when it’s a movie that I don’t think particularly showcases what our national film industry has to offer. Luckily, The Third Man is a film which exemplifies the best of British and earned its director Carol Reed the second of his three Best Director nominations. Reed is best known to international audiences for helming the 1968 Best Picture winner Oliver!, for which he himself won the Best Director prize, however he produced some more interesting movies earlier in his career. The Third Man, released in the UK in 1949 and in the states a year later, is arguably his best film and, unlike a lot of the other movies I’ve watched recently for this project, it doesn’t feel dated at all.
The most intriguing character in The Third Man is the film’s setting; a fractured post-war Vienna where racketeering is rife and dangers lurk around every corner. Into this world comes American pulp novelist Holly Martins who is visiting his old school friend Harry Lime who has promised his impoverished author friend a new job. Unfortunately for Holly he arrives in Vienna just in time for Harry’s funeral and quickly learns that he was the victim of a road accident although details from on-lookers are sketchy at best. Thanks to a chance encounter at a hotel, Holly stays in Vienna to investigate Harry’s death and hopefully clear his name in the eyes of British police official Major Calloway. Holly’s amateur sleuthing unearths flaws in the various witness accounts of Harry’s death with some claiming he died instantly whilst others saying he had time to make plans for his friend’s arrival. The plot thickens when Holly warms to Harry’s former squeeze; actress Anna Schmidt and later when a porter from his building is murdered after promising to give information to the writer. Meanwhile, Calloway reveals the extent of Harry’s deviousness as he was selling cheap diluted penicillin on the black market to poor families which resulted in babies either dying or suffering brain trauma. All these revelations finally built up to the film’s most famous moment, and one of cinema’s best plot twist, when Harry turns up alive and well lurking in the shadows. This makes for a thrilling final act when all the characters have their morals tested with the plot climaxing in the cavernous sewer system in Vienna. The Third Man also has a fitting conclusion as Holly doesn’t get receive the happy ending a Hollywood protagonist would normally get which makes the movie feel more realistic.
First things first if you haven’t seen The Third Man, you need to watch it as it’s a film that doesn’t age and keeps you on your seat from beginning to end. There’s no denying that Reed deserved his Oscar nomination for helming a film that is visually spectacular and experimented with several different camera angles that you didn’t see in other movies from the late-1940’s. The imagery throughout The Third Man is stark and the imagery is rather harsh as we see Holly stalking around a Vienna ravaged by war and attempting to rebuild itself. The distorted camera angles made The Third Man feel unique and were off-putting at times but, in my opinion, are what make The Third Man stand out from other film noirs of the time. For this reason I believe that cinematographer Robert Krasker deserved his Oscar for his work on the film as he was as instrumental to its success as Reed was. I do feel that Grahame Greene deserved similar plaudits for creating a cracking screenplay that brilliantly built up the tension before releasing its killer blow. All of the characters felt realistic; from the struggling novelist, to the loyal girlfriend to the police who were just trying to do their job in a city where nobody appeared to trust anyone. Interestingly Greene and Reed disagreed over the ending with the former wanting a more traditional conclusion whilst the latter pushed for the version we eventually received. In hindsight, this was probably the right move as I don’t believe The Third Man would’ve worked as well if Holly had gone walking off into the sunset with Anna. Since I watched the movie earlier today, Anton Karas’s Zither-heavy theme tune has been stuck in my head, not that I’m complaining as its probably the most recognisable element of the movie. Karas’ score like Krasker’s cinematography, is another unique element of The Third Man and another part of the film that shouldn’t fit together as well as it does.
Whilst the cast of The Third Man were universally fantastic, I don’t believe there were that many standout performances and instead Reed’s film offered up an example of a brilliant ensemble working off each other perfectly. Joseph Cotten made for a believable everyman lead, Trevor Howard was great as the sarcastic Calloway, Bernard Lee was memorable as his second in command and Alida Valli was fantastically glamorous as the loyal Anna. However, the film’s most striking turn came from Orson Welles who was on camera very briefly but made every minute on screen count in order to turn Harry Lime into one of cinema’s greatest villains. Welles’s charisma was evident in the pivotal scene where Harry meets Holly on the Ferris Wheel and later when he attempts to evade arrest in the sewers. I do feel that Welles should’ve received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his turn here even though some see it as nothing more than an extended cameo. Although I do believe Reed deserved his nomination, I’m surprised that he received it purely because a lot of the contemporary reviews of The Third Man were quite harsh towards the jaunty camera angles. I particularly liked the story about William Wyler sending Reed a spirit level telling him to place it on top of the camera next time he made a picture. Certainly, The Third Man feels like a movie that didn’t receive the proper appreciation in its time and I feel that both it and The Asphalt Jungle deserved Best Picture nominations. If they’d replaced King Solomon’s Mines and Father of the Bride, 1950 would’ve had a stronger line-up as a whole thanks to these grittier, contemporary pictures. Ultimately, The Third Man is as close to perfection a film can reach and I’ll never pass up an opportunity to re-watch what I consider to be one of the best movies this country has ever created.
Next time I wind the clock back one year as I look at the first film for which Reed received a Best Director nomination.