Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Third Man — Justyn Dillingham

Some movies are of their time and place, and stay there, but The Third Man brings its own time and place with it whenever and wherever it plays. “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies,” wrote Roger Ebert. “I saw it first on a rainy day in a tiny, smoke-filled cinema on the Left Bank in Paris. It told a story of existential loss and betrayal. It was weary and knowing, and its glorious style was an act of defiance against the corrupt world it pictured.” The film was shot in postwar Vienna, and it’s hard to think of any other film that captures its setting so well; after seeing it, you might find that ferris wheel and those sinister balloon men popping up in your dreams. With its dreamy, sideways shots, The Third Man sometimes looks as if it was filmed in a giant ashtray, with bombed-out buildings sticking out of the rubble like cigarette stubs.

The film, from a Graham Greene story, tells the story of Holly Martins (the always excellent Joseph Cotten), a writer who comes to Vienna to see his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover that Lime is – well, that’s complicated, it turns out. As Martins sets out to discover what became of his friend, he spirals into a world of sardonic British agents, shifty-eyed physicians and an enigmatic actress (Alidi Valli, credited simply as “Valli”), all of whom had something to do with Lime’s unusual career. Soon Martins finds himself caught up in a rather more morally puzzling story than the pulp Westerns he writes for a living. He thinks he can play the good guy, but in this story, there are no good guys – and, very possibly, no bad guys.

Why is Orson Welles so universally associated with The Third Man? After all, he’s barely in the movie – his scenes, added up, probably don’t amount to more than ten minutes. Yet that’s his face beaming out of the poster, and the trailer, and the most famous shots in the movie. The movie’s unusual style – its skewed perspective and gorgeous chiaroscuro black-and-white compositions – are rather Wellesian, but he didn’t direct the film. Nor was Carol Reed, the director, a one-hit wonder; his 1947 Odd Man Out, a masterful thriller with James Mason as an Irish rebel pursued through the rainy Dublin night by British police, is just as striking and powerful as The Third Man.

Yet, somehow, it’s Welles’s presence that gives the film its greatness. (Welles, who spent his career donning fake noses and capes, played the character with no makeup; it may be the closest he ever came to appearing on screen as himself.) With another actor in the role of Harry Lime, the character would simply be a villain; instead, Welles plays him as a disarming charmer – a real charmer, not the villainous kind – and we find it difficult to condemn him. He’s the representative of everything postwar Vienna has become, and somehow still the likable all-American friend Holly Martins finds it so difficult to forget. Perhaps Harry Lime is a scoundrel and a cad, or maybe there’s a little Harry Lime in all of us. Then there’s that famous speech about how the Italy of the Borgias produced the Renaissance while the best poor, peaceful Switzerland could lay claim to was “the cuckoo clock,” a speech Welles allegedly wrote himself and which he delivers with a kind of rapid-fire grace, as if he were afraid he would stumble over words that he clearly meant to be remembered, and quoted, forever.

“When the picture came out,” Welles later remarked, “the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they've never made any cuckoo clocks.”

— Justyn Dillingham is a 2009 graduate of the University of Arizona.


  1. Just saw it. Loved it. It's even better watching it on the big screen. Try to catch it Tuesday night.

  2. This article describes this movie beautifully.