Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick, and Carol Reed
Screenwriter: Graham Greene
Cinematographer: Robert Krasker
Music: Anton Karas
Studio: British Lion Pictures 1949
Main Acting: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles
It always seemed weird to me that whatever film Orson Welles appeared in which didn’t have his name credited as director would inevitably be rumored as being crafted by him. This, of course, was reserved for pictures where some form of merit was tangible and present. There are many rumors floating around that he was actually responsible for helming Norman Foster’s 1943 film noir Journey Into Fear. Forget that Welles himself told Peter Bogdanovich that he had no part in directing the picture, and that Foster was actually a rather competent filmmaker who would also make Kiss The Blood Off My Hands and Woman On The Run. It seemed that whenever Orson became involved in a project, his numerous admirers would try to give him posthumous credit, evidence be damned.
The most annoying example and rather insulting attempt at this is with Carol Reed’s 1949 British masterpiece The Third Man. This speculation throughout the years has never been proven in any way whatsoever. The myth is further weakened when any person knowledgeable about Carol Reed’s career simply watches the two film noirs he made previous to The Third Man. Both Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol are clearly the work of a master director who didn’t need the help of anyone, including Welles. It would also be an understatement to say that the English filmmaker does not deserve such a baseless rumor circulating about his ability to produce such a towering achievement. His three-picture run in the late 40s is as monumental as that of any director in the history of film. He had some wonderful collaborators like Graham Greene, Robert Krasker, and Anton Karas that surely helped him make such great works of art, but the full credit of directing should never be in doubt.
The Third Man has been talked about so much (especially in recent years as its reputation continues to grow along with film noir) that I’m not sure how I could add anything new or worthwhile to the discussion. The plot of the picture is concerned with American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) visiting a bombed-out Vienna, looking for old chum Harry Lime (Welles) who has offered him some work. Once arriving at his destination, Martins gets drawn into a complex labyrinth of intrigue as Lime is pronounced dead. As he starts to investigate the mysterious inaccuracies and troubling evidence uncovered, he realizes there may be more to the story than meets the eye. Lime is like a ghost hovering just above the frame, who while absent from most of the picture, is felt in spirit as all the focus is inevitably on him and his whereabouts. The ending creates a powerful downbeat vibe that goes perfectly with the rest of the feature.
When I laid out my plans for this countdown in The Noir Introduction, it was clear that American noirs from the classic period would be emphasized. I did add an interesting caveat about a British picture or two getting in due to certain criteria. The Third Man is not an American film at all, but made in Europe by an English director, English screenwriter/author, and a mostly English-working cinematographer. The eligibility for this countdown can be summed up by the fact that it does have some Hollywood influence on its being made and perhaps some of its success. Both Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles were obviously two of the brightest stars (though underappreciated) in the United States. David O. Selznick also co-produced the picture with Alexander Korda and was instrumental at the time for influencing some changes that were deemed necessary for American audiences. Luckily, it seems his overall meddling has been made redundant by the fact that the 10 minutes he cut from the U.S. release has generally been restored both on cable and Criterion’s DVD release.
So, yes, you could look at The Third Man‘s inclusion as cheating since I’m essentially breaking my own rules on foreign pictures. British movies like Brighton Rock, Odd Man Out, and It Always Rains On Sunday would have also made this list if I were more lax on my needed xenophobia to whittle this countdown to 50. Since I gleefully admit to bending the rules for including The Third Man, I have thus relegated it outside of the top ten. When first devising this list, both The Third Man and Night Of The Hunter were comfortably resting in one of those prestigious positions. Maybe The Third Man is so good that leaving it out of an American noir list is inconceivable. They Shoot Pictures Don’t They did a similar thing with their top 250 film noirs. I guess we can now see why Welles lovers would want to give their man credit for this Reed classic. When a film is this good everyone scurries to claim a piece of the pie.
I can’t fail to mention that dynamic zither score by Anton Karas. So unique, so divine.