Monday, 23 November 2009

The Third Man (1949)

In Vienna's main cemetery lies an area dedicated to Stalin's soldiers who died in the violent two weeks that it took to overcome the city from the Nazis. The victory was hard-earned, and the city was made to pay in the most unpleasant of ways, with the second wave of the Red Army raping and/or looting the citizens; as some embittered voices put it, "Austria could take a third world war, but it could never endure another liberation."

By chance it is near this Russian cemetery where the Harry Lime funeral scenes were filmed for The Third Man (coincidentally a family grave lies there now named "Grun" - Green) and it seems a suitable spot for one who delved into the murky underworld of a Vienna riddled with the Black Market. It is this climate of post-Russian occupation (by the Four Powers) that so dominates the city and the lingering menace of the film, so brilliantly conveyed by Graham Greene and Carol Reed - with some notable fellow collaborators.

The story, one of Graham Greene's quintessential "entertainments", began from a single line thought up and scribbled down on the back of an envelope:

"I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand."

From this first genesis, it was the inspiration of arguably British cinema's greatest producer, Alexander Korda (fresh from his own adventures across Europe) to suggest the setting of Vienna for Greene's premise as a post-war thriller, working once again with director Carol Reed after their recent successful collaboration The Fallen Idol.

With all the Allied involvement in Vienna, it required a suitable element of international collaboration to put across the story in its proper political context, so Korda looked across the Atlantic to the equally renowned Hollywood producer David O. Selznick to secure the services of two of his contract stars, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli (then billed as just "Valli" in those days.) In return, Selznick took all American publicity and distribution rights, and was also allowed to have a say in the making of the film - which led as a result to a good deal of trans-Atlantic quarreling over how romantic and dramatic the film should be.

Neither gentleman's first choice - probably - was Orson Welles to play Harry Lime (Noel Coward was one name in mind for the role), but with persistence, and perhaps a good deal of cinematic providence, Welles was in the end the natural choice.

Harry Lime may well have been the star, but the film is anchored by Welles's old Mercury Theatre pal Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a writer of pulp Westerns (amusingly mistaken by Wilfrid Hyde-White's cultural attache for a serious writer), who finds himself delving into far murkier plots than those of his Westerns.

Mourners at Vienna's Zentralfriedhof (filmed in between the "Eichinger" and the later "Grun" family graves)

To those coming fresh to The Third Man, it comes as something of a jolt when the film begins with a funeral - of its main character! But nothing in this Vienna is ever quite what it seems - not even the leather-jacketed, staunchly British figure of Trevor Howard, who turns out to be the British head of the International Police, Major Calloway, immediately depicted in a suspicious light (using Reed's tilted camera angles) once Martins discovers after the third drink that he is a policeman. Only a discreet ushering followed by a necessary slug on the jaw from his junior sergeant prevents Martins from taking a swing at Calloway - a great supporting role for Bernard Lee.

Undeterred, Martins delves into the Vienna underworld of Harry Lime's outwardly ingratiating but secretly ruthless black market friends - and then there is the enigmatic beauty Anna Schmidt (Valli), who like everyone else, has her secrets; her romance with Martins lasts only as long as he reminds her of Harry.

But what of Harry himself?
The light from an angry resident's window shines down, outside Schreyvogelgasse near Molker Bastei.

As the story goes on, the audience gradually cottons on to the fact that there's more to this tale than meets the eye, and the sting in the tail, though delightfully teased (with a typical Reed device of a tabby cat), is still a surprise.

Harry's shadow runs off, along the Schulhofplatz towards Am Hof.

Once Welles makes his belated famous entrance, his character takes over the film and more than lives up to expectation in the brief but brilliant Ferris Wheel sequence (filmed mostly at Shepperton but re-creating the Riesenrad), where Martins realises not only that his elusive friend is a deadly black marketeer, but also quite relishes in the task with a good deal of Machiavellian charm, and puts the story into a different perspective, as you realise how simple and seductive things are on the other side of the coin.

Debates may rage among cineastes over how much involvement Orson Welles had in the making of The Third Man, as the style Carol Reed adopted was very symptomatic of black-and-white thrillers of the 1940's, and of Orson Welles films in particular. Welles however, was hardly around the city of Vienna or the film set for a good many weeks, in the midst of his own ramblings around Europe trying to raise money making Othello - in that sense Welles was just as elusive as the character he was playing. So Reed was very much working on his own initiative (Assistant Director Guy Hamilton stood in for many of Harry Lime's appearances on the street), and the only definite contribution that Orson Welles can said to have made was the famous and amusing anecdote about Italy under the Borgias and cuckoo clocks in Switzerland - Graham Greene felt there was no need to "explain" the evil of Harry Lime, but Welles gave it that extra touch.

Once Harry reappears, all previous bets are off and a new game of hunting down the black marketeer is soon underway, with the battle lines quickly drawn: upon discovering that Harry is alive, Anna almost totally switches to his side in spite of her own helplessness, while the disillusioned Martins agrees to reluctantly help the police bring him in. The only weak point of the film for me is the sequence in a children's hospital where Calloway takes Martins to see some of the victims of Lime's penicillin racket, as if to redress the balance - when the rest of the film is quietly revelling in the wickedness.

The police give chase down the steps beside St. Ruprecht's Church.

With the Ferris Wheel sequence having set the pace, the film goes into second gear with the striking chase through the sewers, which Greene climaxes with an ironic take on the Western shoot-out: Martins has a gun, and only he can bring justice to the corrupt town by shooting the bad guy - his best friend.

Orson Welles races for the sewers (some of the time), where the Vienna Kanal section of The Third Man Tour begins, near Friedrichstrasse (below)

The sewer chase wisely keeps the soundtrack down to just the tense echoes of footsteps and shouting through the tunnels of the underground Vienna Canal, although there is ever such a small undertone of Anton Karas's famous Harry Lime Theme (which became a huge hit), when Martins corners Harry, who has a look of reckoning on his face.

A last grasp for freedom, outside the Minoriten Church in Minoritenplatz.

Come the end and we're back at the cemetery, where the real Harry Lime (we suppose) is being buried, and Anna discards Holly by calmly walking by without acknowledging him - a suggestion of Selznick's, which Reed enthusiastically supported - the original treatment by Greene had the two of them walking off together.

The unhappy but reflective ending set the seal on what was perhaps a uniquely atmospheric film, where sentimental romanticism is supplanted by cynical acceptance of life, accompanied by a lyrical zither theme to counterbalance the gloom; a glorious mixture of elements, a British film in beautiful, decayed surroundings, with American star power to raise it up a level - an international effort of true proportions.

Kings Road, Chelsea (left)

Critics and cinema buffs rejoice in Citizen Kane (which this resembles in some ways) but The Third Man for me goes one better because it involves the socio-political atmosphere of the period, within an all-too real setting for the Vienna of the time. The rest of Carol Reed's career never topped this (and why should it?), and for all his own brilliance in front of and behind the camera, Orson Welles is immortalized as Harry Lime - to paraphrase, probably the Best Role in the World.

Anna silently walks away out of the Zentralfriedhof.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films