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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Third Man

Director: Carol Reed
Country: UK
Year: 19549

“Graham Greene was a man of decency and courage; he chronicled the suffering of the world’s most oppressed people and devoted his life to writing books that enriched the lives of millions…”
Richard Greene (no relation), in the preface to his book Graham Greene: A Life in Letters

“Graham Greene was an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and two children for affairs with a series of married mistresses… a serial adulterer with at least 47 prostitutes…”
Michael Thornton, in the UK Mail Online

“[Greene was] a stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few.”
Michelle Orange, in The Nation

Background

Today’s film is directed by Carol Reed, but we’ve already written about him, haven’t we (The Fallen Idol, back in February)? So, instead, we’ll talk about the author of The Third Man, Graham Greene (who also wrote The Fallen Idol).

Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire (that’s in the UK), in 1904. He attended a boarding school at which his paranoid and homophobic father was the headmaster. Graham was mercilessly bullied and attempted suicide several times, sometimes by playing Russian roulette (or so he claimed in his autobiography, though this assertion has since been disputed). When he was 16, his mental distress led to a six-month absence from school, during which he underwent psychoanalysis. Most biographers agree that Greene suffered from bipolar disorder.

At the age of 21, Graham published a (poorly-received) book of poetry. Around the same time, he approached the German secret service and offered to spy on the French. He also wrote articles for the notoriously right-wing and anti-Semitic journal The Patriot. He simultaneously joined the British Communist Party, and lobbied (unsuccessfully) for an invitation to Moscow.

He eventually landed the job of “sub-editor” (whatever that is) at The Times, and would continue to supplement his income with various journalism gigs throughout his life. During his stint at The Times, a devoutly Catholic woman named Vivien Dayrell-Browning wrote to correct him on some minutiae of Catholic doctrine (as devout Catholics are wont to do). They began corresponding and fell in love. Desperate to get Vivien in the sack, Graham converted to Catholicism in 1926. He later wrote that his “…primary difficulty was to believe in a God at all.” His ambivalent relationship with the Church would color much of his later writing.

After fathering two children by Vivien (whom he addressed in his letters as “Darling best dearest most adored Puss Willow”), he abandoned his family and went on to have countless relationships with married and unmarried women, and at least 47 different prostitutes, based on his posthumously-published letters. Despite this, he never divorced his wife, and Vivien would continue to call herself “Mrs. Graham Greene” until her death in 2003. Though she had kept a room ready for his return (complete with his favorite PJ’s under the pillow) for 40 years, she later admitted ruefully: “With hindsight, he was a person who should never have married.”

The affair that prompted Graham’s separation from Vivien? Yeah,well… he was sleeping with his (married) god-daughter. They particularly liked getting it on in the back seat of a car while her husband drove, and also behind the altar in Italian churches. (Which, admittedly, sounds kinda sexy.)

There is so much to tell you about Graham Greene that it’s daunting, but here are some of the more interesting or salacious bits:

Close personal friends with both Kim Philby and Charlie Chaplin.

He once referred to the film industry as “an ignoble gang of foreign, semitic gutter people.”

Here’s an excerpt from Greene’s review of Shirley Temple‘s 1937 film, Wee Willie Winkie: “Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.” When Twentieth Century Fox sued him for libel, he complained to friends: “The little bitch is going to cost me about £250 if I’m lucky.”

Big fan of Fidel Castro and Manuel Noriega.

Involved in some kind of convoluted financial scandal, which prompted his relocation to Antibes in 1966. (Also, his latest mistress lived there.)

In 1982, he wrote a pamphlet (J’Accuse – The Dark Side of Nice) accusing the government in Nice of entanglement with organized crime. Graham was charged with libel, and he lost the case. After his death, however, the former mayor of Nice was imprisoned for corruption, and Greene was (at least partially) vindicated.

According to his official biographer, Greene continued providing intelligence to MI6 until his death.

There is some evidence that he had plans to open a brothel on the isle of Capri.

Though he had gone for years without attending Mass (and even declared himself a “Catholic agnostic” in 1989), as death approached, he got scared and starting receiving the sacraments again. After years of making up outlandish stories to shock priests during confession, Greene wrote a fawning letter to the Pope, proclaiming his undying fealty. He received the last rites and died a good Catholic.

There’s much more to tell, including information about all those books and screenplays he wrote, and also a bizarre episode in which he wrote about a gruesome dismemberment case before it actually happened, but I’ll let you find that on your own.

I’ll end there, so that we have more room for pictures of my new favorite actress: Alida Valli.

Synopsis

The titles appear over the body of a zither (which I for some reason thought was that electronic gizmo you play by moving your hand around a metal pole, but it’s actually kinda like a guitar with more strings and no neck), playing the distinctive Third Man Theme by Anton Karas (it was a big hit!).

The action begins in VIENNA, we learn from a title superimposed over a shot of the city. “I never knew the old Vienna, before the war, with its Strauss music and its easy charm,” the unnamed narrator (the director, Carol Reed, provides the voiceover here, though on some U.S. prints Joseph Cotten‘s voice is heard instead) informs us, before a brief digression on the booming black market and the current political situation.

Eventually, he gets around to the plot: “Oh, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American – came all the way here to see a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime…”

With that, the jaunty zither score swells, and Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) arrives on a train, “happy as a lark and without a cent.”

Martins makes his way to Lime’s apartment, but his friend is nowhere to be found.

“You are ten minutes too late,” the kindly old porter informs him in broken English. “His friends, they already leave with the coffin.” Martins is understandably confused. “There was an accident,” explains the porter.

At the graveyard, Holly arrives and hovers at the edge of the assembled mourners.

“There he is,” whispers one shady-looking guy to another, gesturing toward Martins. Also, there is a very beautiful woman crying; this is Lime’s bereaved girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, played by Alida Valli (or simply “Valli” according to the opening credits).

The sad little ceremony ends, and a sharp-dressed guy with a pencil mustache offers Holly a lift back into town.

This is Major Calloway of the British Military Police, played by Trevor Howard (whom you may remember as one of the adulterous almost-lovers in Brief Encounter). Over a drink (or five), Martins, a third-rate author of paperback westerns, bemoans the death of his friend.

“Best thing that ever happened to him,” replies Calloway coldly. “He was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this town.”

After some booze-influenced angry words (and a solid right to the jaw, courtesy of Calloway’s assistant), Holly vows to clear his friend’s name. Calloway sets him up with a plane ticket home and a hotel for the night, and bids him adieu. At the military hotel, though, Martins meets the addle-brained head of a local literary club, who offers him a deal: deliver a lecture to the club next Wednesday, in exchange for room and board. Martins accepts, hoping to use the intervening week to gather information on the mysterious life and death of Harry Lime.

Before he can even unpack, Martins receives a phone call from one of the shady guys we saw at the funeral: “I was a friend of Harry Lime’s…” They agree to meet at the Mozart Café, around the corner.

“We all sell cigarettes and that kind of thing,” admits Shady Guy (whose actual name is Baron Kurtz). “I tell you – I have done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war…”

Tiny Chihuahua in the crook of his arm, Kurtz takes Holly to the scene of the fateful accident. His story conflicts with the story told by the porter; did Harry die instantaneously or not? And who was this other friend who witnessed the accident? Popescu? Where is he? And what about that beautiful girl at Harry’s funeral? Kurtz is evasive. “What’s the good of another postmortem?” he asks, trying to dissuade Martins from further amateur sleuthing. “Suppose you dig up something, well… discreditable to Harry?”

Holly does manage to extract one bit of information: The beautiful woman, Anna Schmidt, is an actress. That evening, he attends a theater performance and catches her backstage.

“You were in love with him, weren’t you?” he asks. “I don’t know,” Anna responds flatly. “How can you know a thing like that afterwards? I don’t know anything anymore except… I want to be dead, too.” Sounds like love to me.

The more Holly learns about Harry’s death, the weirder it seems: Harry was run over by his own driver, for one thing. Also, Harry’s personal doctor (Doctor Winkel, pronounced Vinkel) happened to be passing just after it happened. Both testified at the hastily-concluded inquest. No charges were filed.

“I’ve wondered about it a hundred times; whether it was really an accident,” says Anna, giving voice to Holly’s growing suspicion.

Holly pumps the porter for more info. Turns out he didn’t see the actual accident, just the aftermath. Nonetheless, the porter did see the accident victim: “There was no way he could be alive, with his head… like it was.”

To complicate matters, the porter insists that there was another, as-yet-unnamed friend of Harry’s present at the accident – the titular Third Man.

Returning to Anna’s room, our heroes find the police, led by the ultra-smooth Calloway, tossing the place. After confiscating her (forged) passport and her love letters, Calloway takes Anna down to the station. “Go home, Martins, like a sensible chap,” he tells Holly again. “You don’t know what you’re mixing in.”

While Anna languishes in stir, Holly pays a visit to Dr. Winkel. He finds out very little; Winkel insists that only two friends were present at Harry’s death.

Back at HQ, Calloway questions Anna. Who is Joseph Harbin? Why did you pass him a message at the Casanova club? Etc.

She is released, but without her passport. With Holly, she visits the Casanova club, where Kurtz is employed as a strolling violinist. By coincidence, Harry’s other friend, Popescu, is also at the club. Just like Harry’s other friends, Popescu insists that only he and Kurtz carried Harry to the sidewalk; there was no so-called “Third Man.”

Nodding toward Anna, Popescu comments, “That’s a nice girl, that. But she ought to go careful in Vienna. Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this…”

Kurtz, Winkel, and Popescu meet someone at the bridge, but the camera is too far away from the action, and we can’t see who it is. I’m betting it’s this “Third Man” fellow!

The porter tells Holly that he has some important information, and asks him to come around in the evening, when his wife is out. Unfortunately, before the porter can spill the beans, he is killed by an unseen assailant.

Holly and Anna swap stories about their mutual friend, Harry. “He made everything seem so… fun,” Holly muses sadly. “When he was fourteen, he taught me the three-card trick. That’s growing up fast.”

“He never grew up,” Anna responds tearfully. “The world grew up around him, that’s all. And buried him.”

Holly jumps in a car which he believes has been sent by Major Calloway. Instead, he is dropped off at the Wednesday night meeting of the literary club, where he is scheduled to give a lecture on The Modern Novel and The Crisis of Faith. Or something.

Of course, the ensuing speech and Q+A session are an unmitigated debacle, even before Popescu shows up with some thugs and Holly gets bitten by an enraged parrot (yes, really), and has to jump out a window and flee for his life.

Back at British HQ, Major Calloway decides these shenanigans have gone far enough. “I don’t want another murder in this case, and you were born to be murdered, so you’re going to hear the facts.” Seems old pal Harry Lime wasn’t just a small-time wheeler-dealer; he was a cold-blooded black marketeer, selling diluted penicillin to wounded soldiers and even to children. As a direct result of Harry’s actions, many people died in horrible pain. Holly doesn’t want to believe it, but Calloway shows him the proof.

Drunk again, Holly drops by Anna’s place to say goodbye. “You’ve seen Calloway, haven’t you?” she guesses. And so has she. But wait – who is that man in the street below, watching silently? Could it be the Third Man? “I could make comic faces, stand on my head and look at you between my legs, tell all sorts of jokes… and I still wouldn’t stand a chance, would I?” asks Holly. Anna just weeps.

Leaving Anna’s apartment, Holly realizes that someone is watching him from a doorway. A window opens above, and in the momentary rectangle of light, Holly sees the spy: Harry Lime, played by a smirking Orson Welles.

third_harry03

Lime’s coffin is exhumed, and – as expected – the body inside is not Harry Lime at all, but Joseph Harbin, the medical orderly who stole the penicillin for Harry. And the hunt is on! Meanwhile, the Russian police arrest Anna, who is actually a Czech refugee. Calloway offers to protect her if she’ll help capture Lime, but she refuses.

Via Kurtz, Holly gets a message to the very-much-alive Harry: Meet me at the Ferris Wheel.

Harry arrives, and they ride up in a closed car to the top of the Ferris Wheel. Holly gets right to the point. “Have you ever actually seen one of your victims?” he demands of his old friend. Gesturing at the oblivious park patrons below, Harry gives his rationale: “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those… dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax?”

Before parting, Harry delivers his most famous line (written by Welles himself, natch): “In Italy, for thirty years 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. So long, Holly.”

Later, Calloway tries to talk Holly into helping to capture Lime. Holly is reluctant, but finally trades his cooperation for Anna’s release. A deal is struck, and Anna is bundled onto a train bound for Paris. When she finds that her freedom was the payment for Harry’s capture, she gets off the train and gives Holly a piece of her mind. “I loved him, you loved him. What good have we done him? Look at yourself. They have a name for faces like that.”

Holly backs out of the plan to capture Lime until Calloway takes him to visit some of the children sickened by Lime’s penicillin. “Okay, Calloway, you win,” he says glumly. “I’ll be your dumb decoy duck.”

Holly arranges a meeting with Lime, but Anna shows up at the last minute to warn Harry, and Harry runs out the back with his gun drawn, and the chase is ON!

Harry flees into the vast sewer system beneath the street, Holly and Calloway and the cops and dogs close behind.

After several near-catches and narrow escapes, Harry, mortally wounded, tries to escape back to the streets via a storm drain.

But the drain is locked, and the chase ends with Harry’s fingers (actually the fingers of Carol Reed, the director) grasping pathetically, impotently at the grate.

Sadly, Holly takes aim and puts a bullet in his old friend.

The film ends with a second funeral for Harry Lime, but, you know – for real this time. Despite the fact that Anna has clearly and repeatedly rejected him, that she despises him for his part in Harry’s death, Holly decides to stay in Vienna a while. “One can’t just… leave,” he explains feebly to Calloway.

In an extraordinary and lengthy closing shot, Holly waits by the side of the road as Anna approaches from far away.

She passes him without speaking. Holly lights a cigarette. The End.

What I Liked

This is another “What is not to love?” film for me; one of my absolute favorite noir-ish films.

There are so many things to praise about The Third Man, but let’s begin with Orson Welles. He doesn’t even appear until two-thirds of the way through the film, but his performance is mesmerizing, unforgettable. We absolutely understand why Holly and Anna were drawn to him; Harry Lime is charming, funny, sly, one of those people who makes you feel that you’re in on the joke, that you’re part of a special secret club. Simultaneously and without contradiction, it’s clear that Lime is an irredeemable sociopath. As Lime, Welles is always sizing people up, checking out his surroundings, outwardly calm but with the gears turning 24/7. You simply cannot take your eyes off him.

Then there’s the cinematography, lovingly capturing both the architectural marvels and the bombed-out rubble of Vienna in crisp black and white. Never content with a simple shot, the camera captures the action from above, from below, and from any number of visually arresting angles. Whenever I see wet cobblestone streets at night, or giant shadows looming on the side of a building, I think of this film. Glorious.

The Third Man also maintains an extraordinarily assured tone throughout; despite the horrifying crimes of Harry Lime, The Third Man doesn’t ever take itself too seriously; the plot is absurdly labyrinthine, the character actors turn in showy performances full of tics and funny bits of business, the repartee is sharp, the cinematography is over-the-top stylized, and – over it all – there’s this jaunty zither music. The Third Man doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say, but the director is clear about that, and never tries to pretend otherwise. The Third Man is deliriously, shamelessly entertaining cinema.

Also: Alida Valli. I’ve only seen Valli in two Dario Argento films (Suspiria and Inferno) and one early Hitchcock film (The Paradine Case), but I never gave her a second thought until I saw her in The Third Man. She is beautiful, yes, but she’s also terrifically compelling in the film; her mixture of grief and anger is always visceral, never contrived. I did not doubt for a moment that Holly would stay behind, hoping to win her over.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I think if I dug a little deeper, I could find some plot elements that don’t make a lot of sense… for example, why would Lime be present when they’re trying to fake his death? How did they get Harbin’s corpse into the street? How did the conspirators get hospital or other officials to go along with their plot? Etc. In the end, though, The Third Man is so fun, so full of intriguing characters, looks so gorgeous, and zips along with such style that I don’t actually care about those plot holes.

Should You See It?

Yup.

Next: The 39 Steps

2 Comments

  1. I liked this movie very much for a variety of reason touched on by the two of you.

    For me, the real kickers were two things.

    One, I felt like it was cold and damp while watching this because of how the movie made use of light and darkness, yet I was comfy on my couch at home.

    Two, the Brit was a guy that starts as the sort of pompous ass you just want to slap and shows his humanity over the course of the film. It was interesting to feel so wrongly about a character at first and just get won over.

    Three, I find the Cold War and the subtleties of it to be fascinating. It was like a chess match and this movie shows the development of that.

    Jeff

  2. It’s a stranger in a strange land story today folks and here we go with our second Carol Reed film in the Janus 50 – “The Third Man.”

    Now, I hazard to give you much of a description due to two reasons. Reason 1. Film Noir films have convoluted labyrinthine (how’s THAT for a big word?) plots that sometimes defy description and Reason 2. 95% of the fun of Film Noir films is trying to figure them the f*ck out. So my feeble attempts to do (ruin) both won’t pass muster here. Besides, Jason probably brilliantly described most everything above – so let me approach this on a different track…

    The setting.

    I know, I know, THE SETTING? That’s like instead of talking about “The Breakfast Club” characters I, instead, talk about the library and/or school. What is up with that?

    Well, just like the setting in “The Breakfast Club” is important to the story – it is more so important to “The Third Man.”

    It is set in Vienna just after WWII. It was also FILMED in Vienna a few years after WWII and Mr. Reed does an amazing job of using the city like it is, in and of itself, its own character. This isn’t just a city…it’s a gang land, it’s a maze, it’s a bombed out shell of something that once resembled a city.

    Now, think about this for a moment. Most films of the 1940’s were filmed on enormous soundstages – all the better to control the environment – but this film really pushes that envelope by not residing in it. Certainly there are a couple scenes in the film (such as when we’re in the woman’s apartment) that SCREAM soundstage (note cheesy cityscape background) – but the moment we’re out – WE’RE OUT. Shadowy streets, waterways, rubble. Cobblestone pathways, hidden doorways, shadows and fog and wetness.

    I was continually blown away by the use of lighting (or lack of it). The use of night. The use of the city. And damn if it doesn’t look perfect in black and white. The cinematography is stunning – probably the best film so far to incorporate all the standard elements – while pushing the envelope at the same time.

    Could the film be done on a soundstage and have any sort of the same impact that it had? Hell no. And just like Reed did in the film “The Fallen Idol” – he uses the setting as not so much of place to live – but a prison. Many times in this film our hero (played by Joseph Cotten) has a chance to leave but you know he ain’t leaving. No one leaves Vienna (at least not in a body bag).

    As for the rest of the story – it is best discovered between you, a DVD player and a couple shots of whiskey. All the best to soak in everything on this sumptuous platter.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Story. Acting. Directing. Setting. Cinematography.

    WHAT I DISLIKED:

    The music got a little over-bearing at times to the point where I wanted to shoot the zither player (the Netflix envelope said I’ll be humming it for weeks…NOT).

    OVERALL:

    Brilliant.

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