Review: The Third Man
***** SPOILER-HEAVY REVIEW. PROCEED WITH CAUTION ***** Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, an American writer who comes to post-war Vienna for a job offered to him by his old buddy Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Unfortunately, when he arrives he’s informed that Harry has suddenly died in an accident. Military policeman Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard) immediately takes a disapproval to Martins’ arrival in Vienna, and suggests he vamoose back home swiftly. However, two things keep Holly sticking around; 1) A beautiful local woman who knew Harry (Alida Valli) whom Holly is romantically fascinated with, and 2) The nagging suspicion that there’s more to Harry’s death than meets the eye. The longer he stays in Vienna, the more Holly’s nagging suspicion grows. Bernard Lee plays a Sergeant, Wilfrid Hyde-White plays the head of a literary society keen to get Holly to make an appearance, and Ernst Deutsch plays a suspicious-looking Austrian acquaintance of Harry’s named Baron Kurtz.
I’ve had a couple of cracks at this critically beloved 1949 flick from director Carol Reed (“Our Man in Havana”) and screenwriter/author Graham Greene (“Our Man in Havana”, Fritz Lang’s “Ministry of Fear”), and I’m still not really gaga over it. I think it’s time for me to accept that this isn’t going to be one of those times when I especially share the critical consensus. As with “Casablanca”, I like it but I don’t love it. There’s plenty to enjoy, particularly the extended cameo by Orson Welles and the unforgettable zither score by Anton Karas that gives the film life, energy, and personality. The shadowy, Dutch-angled, Oscar-winning B&W cinematography by Aussie-born Robert Krasker (“Brief Encounter”, “Libel”, the highly underrated “El Cid”), and use of the post-war, bombed-out streets of Vienna also give the film character. I need more than that though, and the lack of interesting characters or a compelling plot stop this one from being great in my view. The central mystery has just never grabbed me on any viewing occasion.
Joseph Cotten is one of my all-time favourite actors and an extremely versatile one. However, as good an actor as he is, he’s not able to make the rather bland Holly Martins a compelling lead character. He’s never anything less than solid, but he’s played far more interesting characters over the years (Particularly in “Citizen Kane” and Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”). I think the story was meant to be the drawcard here, not the lead characters. So it’s a shame neither category compelled me all that much. Alida Valli isn’t even a terribly great performer like Cotten, and her character did even less for me here than Cotten’s. Her performance is just OK at best, nothing terribly memorable. The supporting performances by a young-looking Trevor Howard, a young-ish beret-wearing Bernard Lee, creepy-looking Ernst Deutsch, and more briefly Wilfrid Hyde-White (who was seemingly never young) are top-notch. However, it’s Welles you’re going to remember here and sadly he’s not in the film until the final third. Welles eventually became an overweight, hammy bore (even in “A Touch of Evil”, another OK but overrated ‘Great’ film), but here he makes every second count in a great, cynically evil performance. His big speech (devised by Welles himself during filming, apparently) is frightening in its casual delivery from Welles as he tries to rationalise the irrational and abhorrent. Harry Lime is truly diabolical, and he and his big speech/amorality deserve to be in a much more interesting mystery/noir plot.
There’s a lot to like here, it’s still a solid film, it’s just that I seem to be the only one to not regard it as a masterpiece. A great-looking, great-sounding film full of flavour, but I can’t say I especially cared about anyone or anything in the story until it perks up in the final third. It’s strange, because the spy/thriller genre is one that normally would appeal to me, and I love a lot of 40s and 50s cinema. It’s worthy of a recommendation, but I think Hitchcock (“The 39 Steps”, “Foreign Correspondent”) and Fritz Lang (particularly “Ministry of Fear”) did this sort of thing a lot better than Reed and Greene have. Critical consensus has this as one of the greatest movies ever made, so see it and judge for yourself.