On the 21st August 2014 my friends organised a party to celebrate the fact that I was still alive after sixty years of drunken debauchery. Part of this celebratory event was a screening of one of my favourite films, prior to the party getting underway. It was my friend (and bromance partner) Andy’s idea to choose The Third Man as he had discovered through nefarious means that it was my favourite British film. About thirty minutes into the screening Andy leaned over to me and asked, “Are you sure this is your favourite British film?”
“Yes,” I replied, “why?”
“It’s a bit slow isn’t it,” he said.
I gave him the kind of look you give to someone who has just said something momentously stupid and said, with as much derision as I could muster, “You fucking philistine. This is not an action movie. If you want an action movie go home and watch The Expendables 3 or Terminator 2. This is The Third Man – it’s written by Graham Greene for God’s sake!”
Obviously devastated by his inability to recognise one of cinema’s most brilliant works of art, he bowed his head in shame and succumbed quietly to my opinionated, but persuasively subtle argument.
The first time I saw The Third Man was on television and it knocked me sideways with its imaginative camera angles, its lighting that was reminiscent of the German expressionist films of the twenties and thirties, its use of the zither as the sole instrument on the soundtrack, and its flawed but sympathetic main characters, and its unexpected downbeat ending. Anyone who had ever read the novels of the great Graham Greene could tell immediately that they were in Greeneland. The main character, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), is a down-at-heel hack writer of western dime novels, visiting a war-ravaged Vienna to look for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When he gets there he discovers that Harry Lime is dead, run over by his own car, and buried. But, as in all of Greene’s work, not everything is as it seems.
|The original film poster for The Third Man|
Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles had worked in partnership before on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – and it shows in every frame when they share screen time together. Welles’ spectacular but controversial debut film, Citizen Kane, caused a sensation on its initial release and has continued to fascinate and astound movie buffs ever since. His brilliant second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, charts the decline of a once wealthy family destroyed by industrialisation – it’s a film that would have been even better if RKO executives hadn’t decided to cut out forty minutes (and burn the only negatives) while Welles was out of the country filming Journey into Fear (1942) because they thought it was too depressing. By the time he came to The Third Man in 1949 he was short of money for his next project and instead of taking a share in the profits he accepted a straight one-off fee, a decision he later regretted as it turned out to be the highest grossing British film of that year. He would have a chequered career after that, but one where he directed and starred in two more genuine classics, playing the bloated, corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in the superb Touch of Evil (1958) and Shakespeare’s rambunctious Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966).
Although never becoming the A-list star he should have become, Joseph Cotton nevertheless carved out a successful career for himself playing a host of differing and sometimes difficult roles – the suave serial killer in Hitchcock’s excellent Shadow of a Doubt (1942), the surgeon Dr Vasalius in Robert Fuest’s delicious black comedy The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), the Secretary of State in Robert Aldrich’s brilliant thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and the Reverend Doctor in Michael Cimino’s disastrous but highly underrated western Heaven’s Gate (1980).
But it’s as Holly Martins that I will always remember him. His character is not the traditional hero and he’s out of his depth in almost everything he gets himself involved in – from his naïve and bumbling attempts to investigate Harry Lime’s death in a bombed out Vienna that’s divided by four major powers to his attempt to talk about writing cheap westerns to an audience of intellectuals – and he breathes life into his character in every situation, particularly in the three short scenes he shares with his friend Orson Welles.
It’s over an hour into the film before Welles makes what surely must be the greatest and most dramatic entrance of any actor in any film ever, and it’s one that never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end whenever I see it. There’s also the brilliant final section in Vienna’s cavernous sewers and in between there’s the now-famous Ferris Wheel scene, where Harry Lime, in trying to justify selling his stolen, diluted and now poisonous penicillin on the black market, tells Martins, “In Italy under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci 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.”
Welles totally dominates the remaining forty minutes of the film – from the moment we first see him in a dark doorway, his face briefly illuminated by the light from an apartment window above, giving his old friend Holly Martins the kind of smile that only he could give, to his final flight from justice under the streets of Vienna. His brief but perfect performance of a man with no scruples and even less remorse for the lives of the children his evil trade has destroyed is nothing short of astonishing.
The supporting cast are uniformly superb – Italian actress Alida Valli, is Harry Lime’s loyal girlfriend, desperately trying to keep herself from being claimed by the Russians; the great Trevor Howard is the efficient by-the-book British intelligence officer Major Calloway; Bernard Lee (thirteen years away from being James Bond’s M in Dr No) is his western loving sergeant; and Wilfred Hyde-White (giving another great performance as Wilfred Hyde-White) is the dithering cultural attaché who mistakenly thinks that Martins is a ‘proper’ author.
Although Orson Welles received top billing, the real stars of this film are the director Carol Reed (Oliver Reed’s uncle) and photographer Robert Krasker. Between them they produced a masterpiece of noir cinema – odd camera angles were used to give the audience a sense of disorientation, back lighting was used to produce lengthened shadows and dark, forbidding passageways, giving the whole thing a sense of unrelenting menace. It was shot in Vienna – this was the real bombed-out Vienna and not just a set built on a studio lot, and close-ups of the faces of actual inhabitants were used to reflect the desperation of the people living there. And Carol Reed’s choice of using Anton Karas and his zither for the score was inspired.
Then there was the great novelist Graham Greene and his excellent screenplay. Greene was one of the 20th century’s most highly regarded novelists – he called his books ‘entertainments’ and no two were the same. Fans of his novels were never entirely sure what they were going to get next from him, but they knew one thing – whatever it was it going to be it would be original and surprising. His body of work – Brighton Rock (1938), The Ministry of Fear (1943), Our Man in Havana (1958), The Comedians (1966) and Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1980), to name just five – testifies to that.
The final scene of the film is different to that of Greene’s original novella. Carol Reed disliked what he felt was an artificially happy ending and changed it to something more downbeat and believable. Greene argued his corner but lost out to the pressure put on him by Reed and his producer, David O. Selznick. But upon seeing the final result Greene said, “One of the few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.”
He was absolutely correct, not just about the ending but of the film as a whole. Time magazine described it as “being crammed with . . . ingenious twists and turns of plot, subtle detail, full-bodied bit characters, atmospheric backgrounds that become an intrinsic part of the story, a deft comingling of the sinister with the ludicrous, the casual with the bizarre.”
I couldn’t agree more. It’s why this is my favourite British movie of all time.
Now, Andy, I know you are an artistic soul and so I therefore urge you to stop watching White House Down immediately and re-watch The Third Man instead – hopefully you will at last be able to recognise it for the classic that it is, thus making your life both intellectually and artistically fulfilled.
You know I’m right.