Hither & Zither: Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) – the Friday Classic review
As English as Schnitzel, but with Graham Greene, Carol Reed and Trevor Howard, it’s a fascinating allegory of Brits abroad in a rapidly changing world
The Third Man
(Carol Reed, GB, 1949)
When The Third Man was screened in 2010 as the opening film of Derby’s ID Fest, an exploration of English identity, the Festival Director Adam Marsh made an interesting point in his introduction. The film was voted (by the BFI, in 1999) as the greatest British movie ever. And yet it stars two Americans, is set in Vienna and is most memorable for its unique score, the couldn’t-be-less-British-if-it-tried zither. I must admit: I’ve seen The Third Man umpteen times and never noticed this… but he’s got a point.
Of course, the bulwarks against scepticism of the film’s identity are the film’s writer and director, Graham Greene and Carol Reed. Both were English, and their sensibility shines through in the piercing, stark vision of a world gone to seed, both in the bitter poetry of Greene’s dialogue and Reed’s efficient narrative drive. Really, though, The Third Man is a strange collaboration between two producers who epitomise the film’s conflicts: Selznick and Korda, American and British, and yet both émigrés from Europe. That tension underlines a film in which nothing is certain and everything is unclear. “You’ve got everything upside down,” Alida Valli’s continental Anna tells the reserved, English Major Carroway. But we’ve known that from the very beginning, when a German porter gets heaven and hell mixed up.
It’s that kind of film, one that begins and ends with the same man’s funeral, where a writer of dimestore Westerns is asked to give a lecture on James Joyce, and where the hero has to betray, against his own tarnished sense of moral decency, a villain who is both suavely seductive and an amoral killer of children – but that’s OK, because the Borgias produced the Renaissance and the Swiss could only manage the Cuckoo clock. It’s no wonder Robert Krasker’s camerawork takes on signs on manic confusion, its skewed angles and exaggerated shadows making it impossible to tell giants from minnows. Even a bar door swings open in opposite directions, an apt symbol of flip-flop morality.
Greene, both a literary titan and a film critic who knew his share of melodrama, throws everything into the mix to convey the shattered, seedy city of postwar Europe. He’d have seen the chiaroscuro of film noir, of course, and, by the late Forties was probably aware of the neo-realism of Rome Open City. The Third Man comes on like a cross between the two, its on-the-fly newsreel-style location work populated with amazingly stylised, grotesque characters. Half the fun of the film is watching Reed and Green throw stereotypes into real, bombed-out locations and watching them warp to this strange new world. There is so much going on that, almost incidentally, the film gets away with showing an overt gay relationship, albeit between two villains.
Joseph Cotten is a commendably muted, muddled hero, Holly Martins evidently at sea in this bizarro reality and flailing to keep the American end up. It’s only Orson Welles’ late arrival that threatens to destabilise the balance of nations in favour of something more Hollywood, but even that is absolutely faithful to the film’s strange identity crisis. The real heroes here, at least from English eyes, are the cherishable double-act of Trevor Howard and future ‘M’ Bernard Lee. One’s a Major, one’s a Sergeant, but forget the usual class divide: in the fractured, zonal world of postwar Vienna, they’re practically a married couple.