The Third Man

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Re-released as part of the NFT’s Carol Reed season, ‘The Third Man’ continued the director’s collaboration with Graham Greene and, like ‘The Fallen Idol’, it’s about secrets, lies and the tension between naiveté and loyalty. The location, however, has shifted from London. Summoned to occupied post-war Vienna by his schoolfriend Harry Lime, brash American pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives to find his old chum being widely mourned, especially by the actress Anna (Alida Valli), though less so by British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). In this quartered, ruined, double-talking city, however, it’s as well to take nothing at face value…

A considerably more harmonious collaborative effort than Allied powersharing, ‘The Third Man’ remains among the most consummate of British thrillers: Reed and Greene’s sardonic vision of smiling corruption is deliciously realised with superb location work, a roster of seasoned Viennese performers and the raised eyebrow of Anton Karas’ jaunty zither score. Although his screen time is famously scanty, Orson Welles’ Harry haunts each scene: everywhere and invisible, he’s a smirking Cheshire cat of a villain, a superb case study in shameless charisma as poisonous contagion. Audiences, like many of the characters, have tended to fall for his charms, fondly recalling the privilege of being taken into his confidence rather than the rotten core it conceals. The film, however, is less charitable, pursuing the performer backstage into the sewers, sick bowels of the city he lords it over. Playing American heroics against British pragmatism, elements of noir against horror (the empty grave, the burning torches), ‘The Third Man’ is suffused with irony yet ultimately serious-minded: without personal responsibility, it says, there is no hope for civilisation – however charming the smirk.

Release details

Rated: PG
Release date: Friday June 26 2015
Duration: 104 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Carol Reed
Screenwriter: Graham Greene
Cast: Joseph Cotten
Orson Welles
Alida Valli
Trevor Howard
Bernard Lee

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