So captivated was Martin Scorsese by The Third man that he wrote a treatise on it while in film school. But his idiot tutor landed him with a meagre B+: "Forget it, it's just a thriller," he sneered. Scorsese has since become one of the greatest directors in cinema history, his tutor, if he's still with us, is most likely still a tutor. The Third Man is not just a thriller.
Fifty-two years old, it is a living, thriving testament to that much-contested adage that old films did it so much better. Rife with vivid characterisation, startling plot developments and the cold, cruel cynicism (love is no paragon, it's a nuisance) that is the trademark of Graham Greene, The Third Man is a thing of true cinematic beauty.
Out of decayed post-war Vienna, twisted and fragmented into multi-national zones, Carol Reed carves an expressionist wonderland of vast, looming shadows and weird, off-kilter camera angles — a world out of balance where moral order has gone the way of the endless sewers. Friendship, love and hope irrelevant ideals in the face of Harry Lime's Darwinistic philosophy. Where the search for truth is a double-edged sword.
It was Sir Alexander Korda who was first struck that this ambivalent, skeletal city would make a wonderful backdrop to a thriller. Having successfully spliced the disparate talents of novelist/screenwriter Greene and director Reed together on The Fallen Idol, he was keen to keep the partnership alive and approached them immediately. Meanwhile, in an effort to smooth the American release, Korda brought in fabled Hollywood producer David O. Selznick — forming a relationship that, while certainly bearing fruit, was based entirely on a series of fuming confrontations. Greene, meanwhile, delivered a script (the novella was written as its basis and only published subsequently) whose lean simplicty belied evocative undertones of a post-war Europe facing the birth of the Cold War. A story a million miles from the one-dimensional moralism of protagonist Holly Martins' forgettable Western novellettes.
Harry Lime is dead. A car accident, apparently: two people were seen to carry the body. But Martins (Gotten), a two-bit novelist stumbling into Vienna at Lime's behest, is not so sure, especially when he hears of a "third man" at the scene. And as the evidence builds that Lime, his best friend, was utterly corrupt, dealing in diluted quantites of black-market penicillin (a plot device Greene based on real events), it also becomes clear that the mysterious villain/friend may not be quite so deceased.
All these events hinge around the fabled entrance of Welles' Lime: the cat mews (actually symbolic of the smuggler — dwelling in the shadows, serving no-one but itself) and the shaft of light falls across his face as the zither score begins its forlorn twang. It's ironic that an actor so famed for the lovely bass rumble of his voice would be best remembered for a scene where he delivers only the childish smile of prankster finally caught out. But it is one of cinema's truly magical moments, and here the film spins about-heel from a murder mystery to a morality play where Martins wrestles with betrayal, love (for the vulnerable Anna (Valli) Harry's ex-lover) and Lime's ambivalently cruel motives — emphasised by his legendary Ferris Wheel speech: "Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we?" Watch as his air of menace increases as the wheel rises, then eases back into silky charm again as the wheel descends.
Beyond Welles' glorious cameo (and he is on screen for merely five minutes), beyond Reed's (and cinematographer Robert Krasker's) visual invention, and beyond Greene's bitterly brilliant script, there is one other, distinct factor in this astonishing collaboration: Anton Karas and his zither. A paradoxical mix of the jaunty and melancholic, its frigid timbre encapsulates The Third Man alchemy and offers yet another dimension ("He'll have you in a dither with his zither," rang the silly but really rather true claim on the trailer). It was to become a huge soundtrack hit in its own right and launch Karas — a jobbing musician whom Reed overheard in a Vienna bar one night — as a global star.
Voted the finest British film ever made by the BFI's poll of critics and filmmakers, what the The Third Man does right up to the desolation of its final shot (for a speechless three minutes Anna walks up to and straight past Martins' expectant loser) is confound convention. We believe we are in a straightforward murder story, but the truth is far trickier and more provocative. The setting is vivid and expansive, yet the film is as claustrophobic and paranoid as any noir thriller. None of the characters are easy to root for — they're all washed-up, cruelly amoral, rigidly legalistic or : simply lost to fallen ideals—yet their destinies are compulsive. It is a bleak, hard-nosed crime story that encompasses a ruined continent, sick and cynical from war. The Third Man finally endures because it offers a simple thing that so many modern films neglect: the power of story.