12/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Number One Third Man

Today I was asked a question I can never answer -- "what's your favorite movie?" When pressed to choose, the same picture always rises to the surface --  "The Third Man." It haunts me. No matter how many films I have seen and will see in the future, I'm fairly certain "The Third Man" will remain my eternal, instinctual favorite. 

In 1948, British novelist Graham Greene wrote this bit of character description for a movie treatment on which he was working: "Don't picture Harry Lime as a smooth scoundrel. He wasn't that. The picture I have of an excellent one: he is caught by a street photographer with his stocky legs apart, big shoulders a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, on his face a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world's day." A year later, that rascal later turned out to be an oddly gorgeous Orson Welles, and the movie became The Third Man, a picture that in spirit matches the lilting recklessness of Greene's character.

The Third Man is an exquisite work of discordant power crammed full of shifting moods. An expressionist film noir, it reveals a dark, unsettling pessimism in its ravaged night atmosphere. A jaunty, bittersweet comedy, it conveys a soulful playfulness among its likable characters. A stylistic achievement, it is a baroque composition of the absurd, a tilted wonder of visual anxiety. It is dreamlike and sensible, seamless and jagged, heartbreaking and hilarious and oddly, mockingly wistful, despite its sad ending. Greene's words that Lime's happiness "will make the world's day" are key. It isn't simply that Greene wrote a likable villain; he wrote a lovable story -- even though it revealed the paranoia and unease that would later characterize the Cold War.

Directed by Carol Reed (who also directed Greene's masterful The Fallen Idol), photographed by Robert Krasker and beautifully scored by Anton Karas, The Third Man is a rare work of art that tickles as much as it torments. The story takes place in Allied-occupied Vienna. During the film's opening moments, a narrator (voiced by director Reed) states it's "the classic period of the black market when the city is divided into four zones, each occupied by a power -- the American, the British, the Russian, and the French. But the center of the city--that's international, policed by an International Patrol. What a hope they had, all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit." Enter an American into this rubble of sadness and crooked opportunity: American hack novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a jobless "poor chap, happy as a lark and without a cent," seeking out his old friend Harry Lime (Welles), who has promised him a job. Unfortunately, Holly learns that his school chum was run over by a truck, a death that seems increasingly unlikely to the American.

A conspiracy emerges -- that of the mysterious "third man," who supposedly helped carry Harry's dead body out of view -- and the naive Holly is impassioned (or stupid) enough to become entrenched in it. In an odd, unconventional teaming, Holly develops a relationship with both Harry's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), to whom he's sexually drawn, and a British investigating officer named Calloway (Trevor Howard), who wishes the hayseed American would mind his own business. Holly also meets an assortment of exotic characters -- friends of Harry's -- and they aid in developing the film's humorous predicament of Western writer Holly attempting to work with such bizarre Kafkaesque visions. Crooked, gargoyle-like and most certainly not American, these multilingual characters further exemplify how ridiculous Holly's American optimism is. Externally and internally there is a cynicism presented to Holly, who, like the characters in his pulp novels, attempts to work on basic levels of good and evil. However, the complexities that Holly faces are neither black nor white.

The movie makes sure to display both character and situation with a jaunty and jaundiced flavor. There is no such thing as simplicity in The Third Man, a concept that's continually underscored by the film's style. Visually, it is an off-kilter intersection of vertical and horizontal lines (some scenes feel framed by the tilt of a man's hat) and a textured variety of high-contrast, low-key lighting techniques. Characters emerge from and duck back into shadows, a visual device Reed uses metaphorically to represent moral complexity. Karas' score is also wonderfully unpredictable. Bouncy, beautiful, ugly and panicky, the music follows and responds to the action like an id let loose. The score also conveys the irresistible, crooked charm of Harry Lime -- a figure so prominent that you forget he is in just a half-hour of the film.

But then Reed gave Orson Welles one of the most famous entrances in movie history: A cat walks down the street, spies a man's shoes in a darkened doorway, curls up at his feet and meows loudly enough for Holly to notice from across a street. A window opens, and light flickers on Lime, and the camera holds a mysterious, mischievous and disarmingly smiling face. Welles (as Lime) looks back at Holly with eyes that silently return the two men back to childhood. Seductive, playful and enigmatic, this moment is suspended with an overwhelming sense of rapture (I get chills, and sometimes tear up every time I watch it) and makes you understand what Anna later says about Lime: "Harry never grew up. The world grew up around him." You forget about the terrible things he's done. You just want to follow him, anywhere, no matter what the repercussions.

These complicated emotions might cause anxiety and hardship, but they may result in delight, which is what makes The Third Man so unique among movies. The film is about expressing the inexpressible feelings that are gnarled in our psyches as fantasies or nightmares. It gets to the heart of that "obscure object of desire" without ever delineating just what it is we yearn for. A timeless masterpiece, The Third Man both restores your hope and breaks your heart.


"Harry never grew up. The world grew up around him."

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.