PREHISTORY ARCHIVE SPECIAL (PART 3 of 3) : Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ (1949) [10/10]
If only judging from its popular reputation, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Third Man consisted of little more than 104 minutes of Orson Welles prowling shadowy back-alleys, while off-camera Anton Karas gives his zither a good going-over. Done no real favours by TV overexposure, The Third Man is all too seldom seen on the big screen it was designed for, with the result that individual characters tend to overshadow the film as a whole.
With a divided postwar Vienna as a perfect ruined backdrop, Carol Reed's restrained direction and Graham Greene's adaptation improve on the latter's novel about an American Western writer (Joseph Cotten) who gets into all sorts of trouble when he starts investigating the mysterious death of old pal Harry Lime (Welles) in a shattered night-city of mystery and threat, menace hovering over the most innocuous of situations – the literary evening with Wilfrid Hyde-White is a classic.
Cotten is as appropriately bland as ever in a role which is inevitably overshadowed by a resonant, enigmatic, slyly humorous supporting performance which steals the film - I mean, of course, Trevor Howard, as the imperturbable British army office who helps Cotten discover the awful truth about Welles, who is also pretty good, in a role which anybody else simply could not fill. Welles wrote the famous 'cuckoo-clock' speech during the big wheel scene – calm, knowing, determinedly anti-sentimental, streaked with danger and barely-hidden malice and menace – which sets the tone for everything else.
Visually remarkable, very funny and still as bright and fresh as a new pin, The Third Man takes its cues from Hitchcock but then spirals off into an idiosyncratic world of comic nightmare – I've lost count of the number of times I must have seen it, but I still haven't found a flaw.
THE THIRD MAN : [10/10] : UK 1949 : Carol REED : 104 mins
written for Manchester University Film Society magazine (Season 46: 1991/2)