It always seemed weird to me that whatever film Orson Welles appeared in which didn’t have his name credited as director would inevitably be rumored as being crafted by him. This, of course, was reserved for pictures where some form of merit was tangible and present. There are many rumors floating around that he was actually responsible for helming Norman Foster’s 1943 film noir Journey Into Fear. Forget that Welles himself told Peter Bogdanovich that he had no part in directing the picture, and that Foster was actually a rather competent filmmaker who would also make Kiss The Blood Off My Hands and Woman On The Run. It seemed that whenever Orson became involved in a project, his numerous admirers would try to give him posthumous credit, evidence be damned. The most annoying example and rather insulting attempt at this is with Carol Reed’s 1949 British masterpiece The Third Man. This speculation throughout the years has never been proven in any way whatsoever. The myth is further weakened when any person knowledgeable about Carol Reed’s career simply watches the two film noirs he made previous to The Third Man. Both Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol are clearly the work of a master director who didn’t need the help of anyone, including Welles. It would also be an understatement to say that the English filmmaker does not deserve such a baseless rumor circulating about his ability to produce such a towering achievement. His three-picture run in the late 40s is as monumental as that of any director in the history of film. He had some wonderful collaborators like Graham Greene, Robert Krasker, and Anton Karas that surely helped him make such great works of art, but the full credit of directing should never be in doubt. The Third Man has been talked about so much (especially in recent years as its reputation continues to grow along with film noir) that I’m not sure how I could add anything new or worthwhile to the discussion. The plot of the picture is concerned with American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) visiting a bombed-out Vienna, looking for old chum Harry Lime (Welles) who has offered him some work. Once arriving at his destination, Martins gets drawn into a complex labyrinth of intrigue as Lime is pronounced dead. As he starts to investigate the mysterious inaccuracies and troubling evidence uncovered, he realizes there may be more to the story than meets the eye. Lime is like a ghost hovering just above the frame, who while absent from most of the picture, is felt in spirit as all the focus is inevitably on him and his whereabouts. The ending creates a powerful downbeat vibe that goes perfectly with the rest of the feature. When I laid out my plans for this countdown in The Noir Introduction, it was clear that American noirs from the classic period would be emphasized. I did add an interesting caveat about a British picture or two getting in due to certain criteria. The Third Man is not an American film at all, but made in Europe by an English director, English screenwriter/author, and a mostly English-working cinematographer. The eligibility for this countdown can be summed up by the fact that it does have some Hollywood influence on its being made and perhaps some of its success. Both Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles were obviously two of the brightest stars (though underappreciated) in the United States. David O. Selznick also co-produced the picture with Alexander Korda and was instrumental at the time for influencing some changes that were deemed necessary for American audiences. Luckily, it seems his overall meddling has been made redundant by the fact that the 10 minutes he cut from the U.S. release has generally been restored both on cable and Criterion’s DVD release. So, yes, you could look at The Third Man‘s inclusion as cheating since I’m essentially breaking my own rules on foreign pictures. British movies like Brighton Rock, Odd Man Out, and It Always Rains On Sunday would have also made this list if I were more lax on my needed xenophobia to whittle this countdown to 50. Since I gleefully admit to bending the rules for including The Third Man, I have thus relegated it outside of the top ten. When first devising this list, both The Third Man and Night Of The Hunter were comfortably resting in one of those prestigious positions. Maybe The Third Man is so good that leaving it out of an American noir list is inconceivable. They Shoot Pictures Don’t They did a similar thing with their top 250 film noirs. I guess we can now see why Welles lovers would want to give their man credit for this Reed classic. When a film is this good everyone scurries to claim a piece of the pie. I can’t fail to mention that dynamic zither score by Anton Karas. So unique, so divine.
What a surprize!!!!!!!! I have been silently hovering over these NOIR threads for weeks now and have been taking it all in. I have been keeping score, trying to assess MAURIZIO’s tastes, and trying to predict in my mind what films will finish in the top 10 and, low and behold, I am completely bowled over by this choice and the position. Granted, I am no fan of the NOIR genre but I figured I had just enough knowledge on FILM to make the prediction that this, Carol Reeds ultimate film and one of the truly great noir films of all time would, in a heart beat, position itself squarely in the final ten. If I were to go out on a limb I would have made the guess and predict that this amazing study in black and white, with its unforgettable Zither score, brisk pacing, tremendous performances and one of the 10 greatest character entrances in all of film was gonna fall into place in the number 2 position (I’m predicting OUT OF THE PAST is gonna take the top slot). That said, I am a huge fan and admirer of this film. I saw this film over twenty years ago for the first time on a really bad bootleg VHS a friend of mine had procured (he was cheap and never spent money on a prerecorded tape and I think there was a better version out there somewhere, but hey, he was hosting and I’m a penny pincher so no harm no foul) and despite the grainy quality of the picture and the scratchy mono sound, the astounding film this is still shown through. Scene after glorious scene is a wonder for anyone looking at film trying to understand true visual artistry on the screen. It is a text book example on lighting and form, shadow play and camera set ups (its one of the films regularly shown as an essential learning film in film courses and universities that teach film production and history of the moving image). The glistening black and white, the shadow and light play (particularly in scenes like the tunnel moment Maurizio has illustrated above and that quick, almost teasing flash of head-lites that reveals, dramatically and for the very first time, the elusive and slippery Harry Lime). The script and story is a cracker-jack of double crosses, witty monologues (Harry’s speetch about the cuckoo clocks, one of the ten best in cinema history me thinks) and building suspense and the performances rate and recieve one more unforgettable than the other. Allida Valli is sexy and innocent but with a secret that makes her one of the best dames in all of NOIR for me, Bernard Lee is perfectly physically menacing but hysterically polite and kind at the same time he’s picking you up after he’s punched you as Sgt. Paine, Trevor Howard is unforgettable as Major Calloway a man who wants to help but definately smells a rat, Joseph Cotten is at his innocent and home spun best as the put upon hero Holly Martins and, in a role that would give Charles Foster Kane, Hank Quinlan and Falstaff a run for the money (his Falstaff is still his best) Orson Welles dominates every single scene he’s in as the nefarious but charming killer of kids, Harry Lime.
To me, THE THIRD MAN is the definition of what I see NOIR as. Slinky women, rainswept cobblestone streets, dark secrets, unholy alliances and few that believe your innocence. It’s one of those films that you take in the first time you view it, bath in the brilliance of its plot and characters, then see it again to see a master director create, almost without effort, the effects that become one of the corner stones of the entire genre and film of the period in total. Carol Reeds masterpiece. Now, I’m really realy interested to see where Maurizio goes from here with the top ten. Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky….
Jamie Again, awesome that this is (surprisingly) outside the top 10! Maurizio has a rebel-rousing streak in him after all! Seriously though, this is a nice essay and I like the closing sentence about ‘claiming a piece of the pie’, just great stuff. I own the criterion edition which is sublime, but can I say that the last time I watched this the zither score annoyed the heck out of me? it’s so obtrusive in parts and I know that it’s place in film fans hearts is assured so I just wanted to put that out there. After thinking that I’m actually wanted to show this to a few friends who have never seen it/know its reputation to see what a gut reaction is without the baggage (yeah I know can you believe I remain friends with people who are unaware of this?) of it’s esteemed reputation. For anyone that’s interested, iTunes U has an existentialism course lecture by Cal Berkley professor Hubert L. Dreyfus where he discusses a film in relation to an important existentialist text (Godard’s BREATHLESS gets a Nietzsche ‘Gay Science’ connection, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR gets compared to ‘Fear and Trembling’ ect) this film gets a ‘Sickness Unto Death’, and partially a ‘Brothers Karamazov’ reading. It’s both accurate and original. It’s preview is here in lecture 18, with a link to the whole glorious thing. Highly recommended.http://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/philosophy-7-spring-2008-existentialism/id354819221
on April 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Samuel Wilson Welles sort of appropriated The Third Man when he did the Harry Lime radio program, for which he did some writing as well. It was a slow-motion digestion process with one of the end-products being Mr. Arkadin. But the legends I’ve read about his contributions to Reed’s movie focus on his supposed authorship of the “cuckoo clock” speech. In any event, Lime strikes people as a quintessential Wellsian type, hence the assumptions of authorship. Whatever his role, The Third Man is one of the greatest British films, but it’s also American enough to deserve placement in this survey. It’s a work of British craftsmanship, but it’s about Americans (and Europeans) more than Britons. on April 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Maurizio Roca Yeah Samuel it does somehow feel less British than something like They Made Me A Fugitive by Calvacanti. Still that part of the world deserves all the credit for making The Third Man. Great comment and thanks for stopping by.
Jamie Actually it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that it annoyed me (which I almost think may be the point). It made me recall the French horror flick EYES WITHOUT A FACE’s tricky little theme… one that’s iconic, but annoying and sometimes laugh inducing. on April 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Samuel Wilson Welles sort of appropriated The Third Man when he did the Harry Lime radio program, for which he did some writing as well. It was a slow-motion digestion process with one of the end-products being Mr. Arkadin. But the legends I’ve read about his contributions to Reed’s movie focus on his supposed authorship of the “cuckoo clock” speech. In any event, Lime strikes people as a quintessential Wellsian type, hence the assumptions of authorship. Whatever his role, The Third Man is one of the greatest British films, but it’s also American enough to deserve placement in this survey. It’s a work of British craftsmanship, but it’s about Americans (and Europeans) more than Britons. on April 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Maurizio Roca Yeah Samuel it does somehow feel less British than something like They Made Me A Fugitive by Calvacanti. Still that part of the world deserves all the credit for making The Third Man. Great comment and thanks for stopping by.