“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing.”
Orson Welles was such a formidable figure in Hollywood, such a large presences, so imposing in everything he did, that even when he’s not a central, creative force behind a movie, it still becomes known s as an Orson Welles movie. Welles didn’t direct The Third Man. Welles didn’t write The Third Man. Welles isn’t the main character of The Third Man. In fact, he doesn’t even appear until after the half way mark, and even then, is in maybe 20 minutes of The Third Man. Yet, if you goggle this movie, or ask someone who’s seen it, I guarantee Orson Welles will be one of the first things mentioned. But if it’s not an Orson Welles movie, what is The Third Man?
In post WWII Vienna, the city has been divided into four zones, each controlled by a different allied nation. America, Russia, Britain and France all have their own, heavily guarded sections. But instead of creating more regulation, these overly fortified areas that try to keep separate from each other only create more cracks for the underworld to flourish in. When American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives at the invitation of and promise of work from his of his friend Harry Lime (Welles), he learns that Lime was killed when hit by a car just a few days earlier.
After the funeral, Martins starts to notice inconsistencies in the varying stories he hears regarding Harry’s death. As he begins looking into these inconsistencies, he meets various people from Harry’s life, including his lover, Alida (Anna Schmidt). Each person he meets leads to more intrigue about Harry, his life before death, and questions about the very validity of his death. It turns out that Harry was a big wig in Vienna’s black market, which means shady dealings, shady enemies and shadier friends.
The Third Man is a movie that pops up a lot in places where movie snobs and classic movie buffs gather. It doesn’t have quite the mainstream, iconic profile of something like Casablanca or Citizen Cane, but I think that’s kind of the point of why snobs and buffs dig it so much. Seeing The Third Man and appreciating The Third Man is proof that you have at least scratched the surface a little in your pursuit of classic cinema and have moved past the obvious, novice titles.
It’s also a favourite of the snobs and buffs because it’s just really good. Joseph Cotton sells his transition from clueless newcomer, to intrigued amateur gumshoe, to obsessed man on a mission. And the sparing use of Welles makes Harry Lime the kind of character who you crave so much, because you see so little.
But above the performances, and above the incredible screenplay from Graeme Green, what really makes The Third Man so brilliant is the direction of Carol Reed. Vienna looks beautiful, decimated and mysterious all at once. The contrast and shadows of the black and white photography gives the entire movie a feeling of almost unbearable tension, and it’s littered with amazing shot compositions in every single scene. The Third Man isn’t an Orson Welles movie, it’s a Carol Reed movie.