(This is the 46th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
I’d like to say that The Third Man is a perfect movie. While the elements were always there, it wasn’t an easy path towards perfection. American producer David O. Selznick had his own ideas about how the movie should play, and he managed to create a version of the film for the U.S. market that had a revised introduction and ten minutes excised to make Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins a more sympathetic character. Filming on location in Vienna wasn’t easy, so soon after the war. Director Carol Reed created what was essentially a British neo-realism, albeit with baroque camera angles. The film was perfectly cast, from Cotten as the clueless American, forcing his way into every situation, to Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s lover, to Trevor Howard as the stiff, intelligent British major. And Orson Welles, who takes up a large part of our memory of the film, even though he doesn’t make an appearance until the film is more than halfway finished, and even though his screen time is limited.
Graham Greene’s script was up to his usual high standards, and the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Oscar for his contributions to the film’s unique look. Finally, there is the instantly identifiable zither music of Anton Karas, so entwined in the film and in our memories that to this day, when you hear a zither, you think of The Third Man.
Yes, I’d like to say it’s a perfect movie. But then there was the time somebody I follow on Twitter said that he’d finally seen The Third Man for the first time, and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN HIM ABOUT THE ZITHER. Apparently, that was a deal breaker … for him, The Third Man was not perfect.
And so I’ll lower my praise just a touch, in honor of that zither-hating viewer. But near-perfection is a wonderful thing. The British Film Institute named The Third Man the best British film ever; it’s the highest-ranked British film on my own list. Its vision of post-war corruption is unsparing, the film’s style is noteworthy … I want to say that word “perfect” again.
Plus, I can’t quit talking about Orson Welles. Welles plays a character, Harry Lime, as lacking in ethics as any character you’ll come across. Little children die because of Lime’s actions. But Welles’ charisma in the role is such that a radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime, was created. This told the story of Lime in the years before The Third Man, and while Lime is a con artist in the series, he is nowhere close to the evil presence of the film.
In what I think is odd, considered how highly I rate this movie, the entire comments section is taken up with a discussion between Phil Dellio and I about Altman’s The Long Goodbye.