Certain times in certain places almost produce stories by themselves. Post Second World War Vienna was one such, a city divided into administrative cantons by the four allied powers, from which they conducted a busy trade in espionage and back-channel diplomacy, until the occupation ended in 1955. This period of narrative affordance was in full swing when Graham Greene wrote The Third Man and Carol Reed directed it in the late 1940s. Some works of fiction create a sense of place so vivid that landscapes or cities can become active characters, and so it is with this film.
If I was any kind of a cinéaste I’d have long since seen The Third Man, but it’s never too late to educate yourself. It’s easy for a contemporary audience to think that old movies lack sophistication, with all the technological whiz-kiddery at the modern director’s disposal, and the increasingly naturalistic approach to dialogue that has characterised mainstream cinema since the 1970s, but this movie should give the lie to any such notion. Yes, its actors deliver their lines according to the conventions of the era, but as an essay in the art of film-making, as a formal cinematic composition, although The Third Man may very well have been equalled, I harbour profound doubts that it has ever been surpassed.
That central dramatic character of the city is brought to life with incredibly meticulous shot-making. Each shot is strikingly framed, each containing strong vertical and horizontal linear elements, and in many the camera is rotated around its focal axis to produce a so-called ‘Dutch tilt’. The high contrast film-stock and harsh, hard-edged lighting combine with the dramatic framing and sharp editing to produce a visual experience that belongs to the German Expressionist tradition. Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his work on The Third Man, although he was little recognised in his lifetime, particularly in his home country (despite also shooting David Lean’s Brief Encounter). The Third Man is enough to secure him a place as one of the all time masters of the movie camera.
It’s a beautiful film, above all else. The script is brilliant, as you’d expect from Graham Greene, in both plotting and dialogue, although the ambiguous, open ending (which feels way ahead of its time) was down to Reed—Greene argued for a happy resolution at the time, and later came to see Reed’s decision as the right creative choice. The long, static shot on which the film concludes, squarely framed with parallel lines converging to the horizon, stands in contrast to the claustrophobic and disorientating scenes that characterise the bulk of the narrative—to have given the protagonist a frankly unearned pay-off in that visual frame would have been far too neat, and would certainly have undermined the early Cold War paranoia of the movie. The snub he receives instead is perfectly judged—low key, and not commented upon.
The soundtrack is a remarkable piece of work, its composer’s sole essay in scoring to picture—in fact it was his first foray into composition. Anton Karas was a jobbing zither player, working in a Vienna café, when Carol Reed heard him while location scouting, and decided on the spot that he needed him to soundtrack his movie. There is a whole, further fascinating story about the transformative effect this chance encounter had on Karas’s life, but suffice it to say this unknown instrumentalist produced one of the best known movie scores of all time, and the main theme was released as a single which sold half a million copies, an unprecedented number at the time. The jangling, unsettling melancholy of the score, performed solely by its composer on the zither, is a perfect counterpart to Krasker’s extraordinary and atmospheric cinematography, imbuing the film with a sense of menace and unease that pervades every scene and every line of dialogue.
Orson Welles puts in a quietly menacing performance as the villain of the piece. His part in the film has achieved a mythic status out of all proportion to his screen time, and somewhat unfair to his co-stars, as it is a strong ensemble in which there is no single star, with every actor delivering the kind of low-key performance that the gritty and paranoid narrative demands. The Third Man has been called the greatest British film of all time, and although I’m in no way qualified to judge the veracity of such a claim, I’ll happily stick my neck out far enough to say it’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever seen.