what i watched last week
by request: casualties of war (brian de palma, 1989)

a few more thoughts about the third man

A few years ago, when a group of us ran a series on our fifty favorite movies, I had The Third Man at #5. I wrote:

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.

When Criterion released The Third Man on Blu-ray, I made it my first-ever Blu-ray purchase. It looked and sounded great. But what we have now is a new 4K restoration, and I don’t know much about technology, but I understand that the resolution is greatly increased. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing ... the better the quality of digital restoration, the less likely it is to look like celluloid. All I can say is that I found the restored version to be quite beautiful on the big screen.

The Third Man is one of those movies where I don’t know what to write, because it feels like it has all been said. Then again, people still write dissertations on Shakespeare, so there must be something new under the sun. I know that when I write about The Third Man, I’m assuming that everyone knows everything that has come before. So there is no trivia I can use to surprise, no angle that hasn’t been considered in depth (pun not intended). I was the big Welles fan in our Fave Fifty group ... as I recall, no one else had any movies Welles directed on their list, while I had two. But I ranked The Third Man higher than either Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil ... does that mean I think The Third Man is Welles’ greatest film? No, because it’s not “his” film. His participation was apparently even less than it might seem ... he spent a week or so on the film, wasn’t involved in most of the things we think of as “The Third Man” (like script or cinematography etc.). He played a memorable character and wrote a small part of Lime’s dialogue. (I was fascinated to find out that one Welles contribution was Harry’s stomach problems.) But ... and here, Welles can thank Carol Reed and the rest of the team ... Harry Lime was indeed memorable. Welles made him more so, but Graham Greene deserves most of the credit for that. Also the construction of the film, which kept Harry off screen for so long, resulted in one of the great first appearances in movie history, and while Welles made the most of it, the reason it is iconic is the setup and payoff ... the kitty cat was almost as important as Welles, and the shots of Lime were brilliant. The scene in the ferris wheel is justly famous ... both Welles and Cotten play if perfectly, the setting, simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, is just as good, and, yes, Harry’s dialogue is perfect, too. And everyone remembers the part about the cuckoo clock, which was written by Welles. Orson Welles is one of the reasons The Third Man is as great as it is. But his contribution is not enough to call this an Orson Welles movie.

But what a performance! There’s a brief moment I love, when Harry and Holly are in the ferris wheel, and as they talk, Harry idly runs his finger on the window, leaving a mark in the built-up moisture. It’s a heart, and the word “Anna”. I want to know who’s idea that was. It doesn’t appear in the book, but that’s not much help ... the book is full of dialogue, it reads like the movie treatment it was. I want to think it was Welles’ idea. Not sure why it matters to me.

I keep going back to that radio show. It’s almost an affront, that it even exists, turning an evil person into a charming rapscallion. But The Third Man leaves you hungry for more Harry, or at least, more Welles-as-Harry. The 52 episodes are trifles, although any radio show with Welles is a pleasure to listen to ... he was a wonderful radio actor. Perhaps The Lives of Harry Lime exists to show us how Holly and Anna felt love for Harry. Because the Harry Lime of the radio series is rather lovable.

One last thing. In Greene’s treatment/novella, Holly and Harry are English. It might have been the smartest move of all to change Holly’s background to American. It adds the subtext of the clueless American, barging around, drinking too much too ostentatiously, never understanding what is right in front of him because what really happens is under the surface. Admittedly, I’m not sure how this applies to Harry Lime.

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