(Dir. Carol Reed) (1949)
Graham Greene once wrote on the back of an envelope;
“I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.”
Thus the idea of a story was born and, although substantially re-jigged later, Greene had the outline and as he claims, “it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterisation, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script.” This seems to us inherently wise but alas, these days, honoured in the breach.
From this promising beginning, and even more fortunately, Alexander Korda wanted to do something based in post-war Vienna, with Carol Reed (Odd Man Out) to direct. The result was a classic: a hard-bitten, funny and suave account of a hack writer who thinks his old pal Harry Lime is dead and not a monster.
Joseph Cotton has the main role as Holly Martins, author of such masterpieces as The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, Oklahoma Kid and Death at Double XX Ranch but there are several vital roles. Trevor Howard as Calloway (not Callaghan), hot on Harry’s trail, was never better. Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz) Siegfried Breuer (Mr Popescu) and Erich Ponto (Dr Winkel) are vivid as members of the Penicillin Gang.
And of course, the Third Man. Orson Welles only has a short amount of screen time but he is central as Lime, his first appearance (an hour into the film) momentous, a huge and knowing performance, that features the weighty line (which he wrote into the script): “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, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly. “*[*Although as Lowe in the Spectator points out, they did invent Toblerone.]
The direction, settings about the grand and war-ruined Vienna (streets, sewers, the Wiener Riesenrad, the Casanova Club), and cinematography are superb. And dig that zither!