FILM (1949)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 December, 2008, 12:00am
 

The Third Man

Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles

Director: Carol Reed

Many of troubled British author Graham Greene's novels and short stories, including The Quiet American, Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana and The End of the Affair, have been adapted for the big screen and TV over the decades.

Director Carol Reed's pessimistic thriller The Third Man, which Greene wrote as a short novella not for publication but as the basis for a screenplay (though it went on sale shortly after the film's release) - is arguably the most adored.

The dark tale is one of treachery and disillusionment.

It is set in Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, when the bomb-scarred and exhausted Austrian capital was geopolitically divided into British, French, American and Russian sectors, with an international zone haphazardly administered by all four Allied powers at the city's centre.

It was a time of great paranoia and anxiety in a city awash with spies and refugees, and home to a thriving black market for everyday commodities.

The film opens with Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), a naive and foolishly romantic American author of pulp westerns, arriving in Vienna by train. Martins has travelled on the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles, above). Lime has offered the down-at-heel writer a job in the city.

Martins soon discovers that his buddy has recently been killed in a road accident. Intrigued by discrepancies in eyewitness accounts, Martins decides to investigate, gradually gathering evidence - largely via quietly determined British military police officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) - that the deceased may have been involved in some seriously disturbing skullduggery. Striking Italian actress Alida Valli provides a love-triangle interest.

Though acting performances are solid throughout, atmospheric Vienna is the real star, and The Third Man was filmed largely on location in an expressionistic style.

Reed's use of high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, harsh and low-positioned lighting to cast enormous human shadows on buildings, water sprinkled on cobble-stone streets before shooting to enhance reflections during after-dark scenes, and off-kilter camera angles to suggest moral ambiguity, all combine to create perfect film noir tension at the commencement of what would become the cold war.

And to top it off, there's the distinctive score composed and performed by Anton Karas, a previously unknown Austrian musician discovered by Reed and Howard while he was playing the zither in a Viennese cafe.

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