One yardstick of a film’s greatness is how well it survives repeat viewings. Carol Reed’s The Third Man is championed as a movie not only withstanding familiarity but actually improving upon multiple sittings. After a fourth time this writer remains in the chorus of those cherishing their return visits to the gargantuan Ferris wheel and labyrinthine sewer system of post-WWII Vienna, though on this engagement the abundance of assembled talent is frankly less impressive than the thrilling courting of failure through ambition.
As it progresses, The Third Man is increasingly on the brink of going visually overboard, foremost of course in the rise of its diagonal cinematographic strategy as the story thickens, but also in how it occasionally lingers on the uniqueness of faces in close up, in particular the associates of Harry Lime as they’re questioned by Holly Martins.
Zither is memorably utilized but is essentially a one-trick maneuver serving to amplify the production’s individualistic nature. If possible, others surely would’ve mimicked or at least tried to approximate the minimal approach; imitation is a staple tactic of the movie business after all and in this case a cost cutter to boot. Rather than a doorway leading to fresh possibilities, Karas’ theme proved to be an endearing one hit wonder as orchestral scoring dominated motion pictures for another 20 years. Even now one instrument soundtracks are far more common in smaller indie flicks.
The Third Man’s international background certainly helps to lessen Hollywood conventionality; the distinctiveness begins with the zither accompaniment of the credits and includes the heightened realism of the location shoot, the slyly recurring language barrier (“What is he saying?”) and the now famous Selznick-frustrating denouement. Today the scene endures not so much as an unhappy ending, instead registering as just poetically right.
There’s also the British extension of an American genre to consider; in a wholly US film noir, especially of the low budget variety, Holly Martins would’ve been a sap and not simply an innocent abroad, his likely fate to die pathetically; what’s more, Anna Schmidt would’ve probably been the one to kill him. But no matter, for Reed and his crew had no idea they were making a noir.
Graham Greene’s dialogue is a rare jewel of legit literary worth, striking a fine balance between everyday locution and eloquence, with the results rolling splendidly off tongues and never faltering into the florid. All the better to emphasize Harry Lime’s belated entrance; the strength of Welles’ celebrated speech, later revealed by Greene as written by the actor, is so pervasive/persuasive in its malarkey (“You know what the fellow said…”) that to this day it convinces many (mostly impressionable young minds, but still) of its truthfulness regarding the way of the world.
No, The Third Man’s not perfect; the balloon seller is positively dripping in Old World caricature while the infernal young brat in knee pants gapes so exaggeratedly he momentarily seems to be victimized by a spirit possession, but these are merely small bumps in the journey. They serve as a reminder that the truly great movies risk something in the making.
A film frequently assessed as timeless, The Third Man perseveres as a singular cinematic achievement in part due to the strength of its portraiture of a specific moment in world history. Like all exemplary fictions it has an intimate relationship with the truth.