The Best Movie Orson Welles Never Directed: The Third Man

Title: The Third Man
Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard.

The instrument in the background is a zither.

Oftentimes, a director’s fame is by no means proportional to their output.  For example, Francis Ford Coppola is a household name in America, and well-respected, but he only made a handful of films that were exceptionally good.  Meanwhile, Michael Powell in the US is fairly obscure, and yet he made more than a dozen wonderful films.

Carol Reed, the director of The Third Man, is another British director who goes overlooked all too often.  He’s overshadowed by his fellow country-man Alfred Hitchcock.  Reed, like Hitchcock, made artful thrillers–try watching Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Reed’s Night Train to Munich and you’ll see their similarity.  I think you’ll be hard-pressed to say which one is better.  The clearest case of a director overshadowing Carol Reed would have to be Orson Welles, who just happens to co-star in The Third Man!

Orson Welles in The Third Man.

Many people have watched The Third Man and noticed how the look of the film resembled Welles’ style in Citizen Kane.  Knowing Welles’ penchant for dominating film sets, a sort of urban legend has spread that it was Welles, and not Reed, who contributed the most to the look, style and tone to The Third Man.  It also features Welles’ frequent cohort Joseph Cotten.  Some people have assumed Welles requested Cotten for the lead, but from what I’ve read, it was the opposite.  Knowing his friend was having trouble in Hollywood, Joseph Cotten suggested he be used in the film.

As for the similarities in styles, that’s most likely attributed to one factor: German Expressionism.  Both Welles and Reed (as well as Hitchcock, Ford, and Dieterle for example) were artists who had grown up on German Expressionist films (like Fritz Lang’s M), so the reason why they resembled each other is because they both had similar tastes in art, and of course the tense zeitgeist of the era contributed as well.  Here’s one major difference: Welles’ career as a director was unfortunately jumbled and short, while Reed had a long and rich career.  If you need further proof that it was Reed, and not Welles, who created the aesthetic of the film, watch any other Reed movie; his style is consistent even when Welles is not around.

The Third Man itself is a surprisingly whimsical detective story taking place in postwar Vienna, where destruction from the war is still noticeable on the streets.  The story is based around a Graham Greene novella written specifically to be given a film treatment.  It begins with a somewhat naive American named Holly Martins (for comical effect, he’s a writer of western novels) played by Joseph Cotten coming to Vienna to visit an old friend named Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles.  As an example of British gallows humor, when Martins arrives and asks him for Lime’s whereabouts, a concierge says something to the effect of “you just missed him…  he died.”  Martins shares some commonalities with Joel McCrea in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent; he sort of bumbles his way into a mystery and an adventure, except Martins is smarter than McCrea’s character.  While inquiring about his friend, Martins realizes Lime’s death doesn’t exactly add up.  On the surface, it looked like Lime was killed by accident by a car as he was crossing the street, but as Lime questions Limes friends, including his former lover played by Italian art-house star Alida Valli, he expects something is afoot.

Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins

Martins is alternately aided and impeded by well-meaning but doltish Major Calloway, played by British star Trevor Howard.  Likewise, Alida Valli seems to love him in some scenes, but hate him most of the time.  The first half of the movie involves Martins pinballing around these different personalities until he grasps the larger import of the mystery.  There’s definitely a cloak and dagger feel to many of the scenes, and, in German Expressionist fashion, there’s no shortage of shadows used for suspenseful effect.  While this might sound gloomy, the movie is light on its feet.  In one of the most brilliant choices in musical accompaniment, the movie’s score is made entirely of a recording of a zither (imagine a guitar with way more strings that you play on your lap–like the picture at the top of the post).  The melody is one that’s bound to be stuck in your head for a while, like the stringed music to Doctor Zhivago, for example.

One of the reasons why I’ll call The Third Man a must-see film is that there’s a long chase sequence through the sewers of Vienna.  It fits in perfectly to the plot.  As the film goes along, Martins peels off the veneer of Vienna layer by layer until arriving at the underworld, quite literally.  It’s the reality beneath reality.  Readers of Thomas Pynchon’s V. or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere are likely to appreciate this sequence.  More importantly, the sewer sequence represents the subconscious, where politeness and decorum (two things that seriously delayed Martins’ quest) are rendered nonexistent.  Specifically, it reflects upon Martins’ mind.  It had been hinted at several times that he cares for Alida Valli’s character, but it’s this guilt and anxiety about a romance with her that propels this adventure.  Part of his motivation in nabbing the criminal is jealousy of a sexual nature.  It’s only fitting then that the entrance to this underworld is through an old fashioned phone booth–which is phallic in a Freudian sense.  I read that to this day, in tours of Vienna, tourists ask about where the phone booth is, not realizing it was just a prop.

One other reason to watch this movie is for the famous last scene.  Spoiler Alert.  The last scene is a long take of Alida Valli walking down the middle of a road, with Joseph Cotten standing in the foreground lighting a cigarette while leaning against a car.  In the original script, Cotten was meant to speak to her when she reached him.  In the take that made the picture, Cotten was not aware they were actually filming him; he believed they were doing a take just to get the tracking right, so he didn’t bother acting at all and decided instead to have a smoke instead of hitting his mark and stopping Valli as she reached him.  As he wasn’t paying attention, Valli–who was a consummate actress–just kept walking.  Seeing the strange magic of the scene as it accidentally played out, Reed decided to keep it in the picture, completely changing the final scene of the film!  It’s a happy accident, like the famous scene in On the Waterfront where Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops her glove and Brando, staying in character, goes ahead and picks it up for her.

Screenshot of the famous last scene.

So if you love Orson Welles, or a good mystery, or British cinema, or Graham Greene, or good films at all, watch The Third Man.

–If you’re looking for something to read, check out my novel A Rapturous Occasion.
What is your opinion of the film The Third Man?

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