Earlier this week, BBC Culture released its lists of “The 100 greatest American films” from a poll of 62 international film critics. The results weren’t surprising — what was left off cause more discussion — with the usual suspects: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Godfather, The Searchers, 2001, etc. topping the list.
While these lists are arbitrary for their ranking, they remain fascinating for their treatment of the time-honored notion of canon. Whether or not Citizen Kane is the greatest motion picture of all time is debatable, but most agree that it is amongst of the greats. A pillar of cinema that helps viewers understand where the medium came from and where it might be going.
Another such pillar from the canon — not included on BBC’s list because it is a British production — returns to the big screen with a brand new digital 4K restoration, 1949’s The Third Man.
Opening Friday, July 24 at the Landmark Mayan, The Third Man brought together titans of the cinema for a work that was destined to be a classic from day one. Directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, with Alexander Korda and David O. Sleznick producing without credit, The Third Man follows Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp novelist who has traveled to Vienna to visit his friend, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, Martins arrives just in time to find that Lime has met his end under mysterious circumstances. The timing is tragic, but a novelist like Martins suspects that there might be some convenience in the coincidence.
Martins remains in Vienna and questions those closest to Lime. Accounts of Lime’s demise vary and Martins digs deep, discovering that Lime wasn’t quite the above-board friend he thought. Instead, Lime was stealing penicillin from military hospitals and selling it on the black market with heavy dilution. Lime’s medicine did exactly the opposite of what was intended, and now Lime has the blood of hundreds of sick children on his hands.
Martins’s shock is understandable. Before arriving in Vienna, his dear friend was alive and well. Now he is dead and despicable. But the rumors of Harry Lime’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and Martins stumbles across Harry Lime, alive and well, and played by Orson Welles.
The reveal of Harry Lime is justly one of the iconic images in all of cinema — no doubt because of Welles’s tiny smirk, acknowledging how poetic the reveal is — but it is just one in a visual tour-de-force from cinematographer, Robert Krasker, who received an Academy Award for his efforts.
Krasker photographs The Third Man expressionistically, using high contrast black-and-white imagery and Dutch angles to capture the moral uncertainty of post-war Vienna. Martins is stuck in the middle of this conflict, torn between the morality of Anna (Alida Valli), Lime’s ex-girlfriend and Martins’s potential squeeze, and Lime’s callous view of the world. Martins’s struggle isn’t just one between best friend and girlfriend, but an existential struggle faced by European’s following the terror of the Third Reich. How does one operate in a world after they’ve come face-to-face with absolute villainy?
But Harry Lime doesn’t see himself a villain, merely a pragmatist. Someone is going to profit from this misery, why shouldn’t it be he? The story goes that Welles felt Lime needed a speech that underlined the point, and Reed let him ad-lib one of the most famous in the history of cinema:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Greene’s script is strong enough without this addition from Welles, but who is going to turn down a few extra lines from cinema’s Boy Wonder? Thankfully, Reed and Greene didn’t and the world gained three sentences of poignancy and humor.
The Third Man is a collection of such moments. From Martins wandering the streets of a bombed-out Vienna, to the climatic chase through Vienna’s sewers and that spectacular final image that proves the world breaks each and every one of us. Whether or not we become stronger in these broken parts is still up for debate.