Arts & Entertainment
The Third Man and the Seductiveness of Evil
BY John Prizer
July 11-17,1999 Issue | Posted 7/11/99 at 1:00 PM
Certain people have a special talent for leading others astray. Through charm and manipulation they can persuade essentially decent folk to be party to terrible things. They present evil as exciting and the good as boring and bland.
The devil is often depicted as this kind of tempter, and an essential part of a person's moral education is the development of the ability to resist such blandishments.
The Third Man, winner or the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'Or in 1949, has one of cinema's most appealing villains — Harry Lime (Orson Welles). “He made everything seem like fun,” says one of his admirers. British director Sir Carol Reed (Odd Man Out) and screenwriter Graham Greene (author of The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American) have constructed a moody, atmospheric thriller which is also a morality tale about Lime and his misguided friends.
This classic is being re-released in selected theaters around the country on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
A newly edited director's cut restores 11 minutes removed by co-producer David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) for its initial American exhibition. Ranked 57th in the American Film Institute's 100 greatest movies poll, it also was named one of the 10 best shot films of the first half of the century by American Cinematographer magazine. The original version is available in most video stores.
The setting is cold-war Vienna which is divided into four zones, each occupied by one of the great European powers. It's a dangerous vortex of espionage, smuggling and black-market intrigue. “Amateurs can't stay the course,” warns the opening narration, delivered in this version by Reed over an image of a corpse floating in the river.
The pervasive evil of the place is suggested by a skillful melange of expressionistic and semidocumentary techniques. Exaggerated camera angles and a heightened contrast between light and shadow are deployed against a background of monumental Baroque buildings, either heavily damaged or standing free next to bombed-out ruins. The haunting sounds of Anton Karas' multistringed zither imbue the action with a doomed romanticism.
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is an American writer of hack Westerns with titles like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at Double X Ranch. Down on his luck, he travels to Vienna because his old buddy, Harry Lime, has promised him a job.
Upon arrival at Lime's luxurious apartment, Martins learns that his hoped-for employer is dead. Lime was hit by a truck in front of his flat, and, by strange coincidence, his two closest Viennese associates, the seedy, violin-playing Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and the shifty Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto), were present at the accident.
The novelist suspects murder and sets out to find a key witness, the unidentified third man who helped Kurtz and Winkel carry Lime's body over to the sidewalk.
Present at his friend's funeral is a stern British military cop, Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), who claims that Lime was a racketeer trafficking in watered-down penicillin stolen from a local hospital. “Death's at the bottom of everything,” the major tells Martins. “Leave death to the professionals.”
“I'll use that line in my next Western,” the novelist replies. He vows to prove Calloway wrong. “You were born to be murdered,” the major warns.
Only Lime's shady actress-girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), truly mourns him. “I want to be dead too,” she confides to Martins in a fit of attractive melancholy. The novelist falls for her and complicates his investigation.
Modeling himself on one of his own six-gun heroes, Martins blunders ahead, confident that his gumshoe skills and sense of justice will carry him through. But his actions muck up Calloway's painstaking police work and cause the death of an important witness.
Martins' arrogant bumbling is considered more than an individual character flaw.
The filmmakers see his behavior as representative of the naive, self-righteous way the United States throws its weight around the international stage. The Third Man is strongly anti-Soviet, but it prefers the reasoned rectitude of its very British major to what it believes are the typically American methods of Martins.
“You've got everything upside down,” Anna tells him. As if to prove her point, another Viennese says of Lime's present whereabouts: “He's either in heaven [pointing down] or in hell [pointing up].” Martins finds himself increasingly confused.
Lime glides through nocturnal Vienna like a disembodied spirit, visible at first only in a shadow here and a flash of light there.
The filmmakers convincingly dramatize how his easygoing, cynical hedonism masks a contempt for other people and the sanctity of life. Eventually, the major puts Martins to the test, and the novelist is forced to choose between loyalty to his friend and doing the right thing.
His decision is clouded by Anna's continuing devotion to Lime which no one can shake. Her willingness to sacrifice herself for her beloved is deeply moving, and in this way the filmmakers make us viscerally understand how seductive evil can be.
Martins' moral education is a dark, ironic journey. He learns that the truth may set you free, but it can also uproot everything you think you stand for.
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
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