Retrospective: The Third Man
Research tells me that people in my peer group don’t like being dictated to but I’m going to disregard that. Get this movie on DVD. If you have an independent local cinema then lobby them to show this. It really is quite, quite brilliant.
Carol Reed’s (uncle to Oliver) adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel takes us to post WWII Vienna where American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) goes in search of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). The plot thickens when Holly learns that Harry has died in a suspicious accident. Furthermore, all of Harry’s friends present at the accident contradict each other with their version of events.
In terms of cinematography the city of Vienna becomes a character in itself. Bombed out streets and rubble strewn alleys hint at danger around every corner and Reeds elegant direction steers us through assuredly.
But the real attraction is the enigmatic Welles. Flitting between charm and menace as the situation requires he is quite simply the most dangerous villain I have ever seen. I say this because Welles charisma and screen presence make you forget he is a villain by obscuring his morally reprehensible actions from not only the other characters, but the viewer too.
The now famous cuckoo clock speech (improvised by Welles) is rightly remembered as one of his standout moments. But equally impressive is the dialogue he has with Holly in the ferris wheel. In one of the only scenes he is asked a direct question of his actions he gives what should be a chilling response as he observes the people in the fairground below:
“Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”
And there you should have the curtain up for the first time and glimpse what Harry Lime is truly all about. Yet you don’t. Not because Welles doesn’t show his ruthless streak and deliberate ignorance of his victims plight, but because Welles’ acting is too good.
There it is in the voice: the lilt of wryly amused detachment at the monstrousness of his actions, the glee in his puncturing of Holly’s black and white (sic) view of the world and the clear sign that he has given in to the allure of profit. It’s an all too human portrayal of an inhuman man delivered with such nuanced charm he’s impossible to hate. Even when the dialogue “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t why should we” spells it out for us, Welles’ delivery reels us back in.
To compliment Harry’s view of life as one big game the soundtrack is suitably playful. It’s a zither based masterpiece by Anton Karas and it’s catchiness could easily be an audio representation of Harry’s charm. The score was also improvised and written on the go by Karas and it contrasts brilliantly with the grey Vienna streets and murky plot whilst also reinforcing them.
In short then it’s brilliantly shot, acted, directed and scored. And I haven’t even mentioned the ace turns by the supporting cast. Go watch. Now.