Back in 1999 The Third Man (1949) was voted the best British film of the 20th century, its Britishness hanging on the origins of its director (Carol Reed) and screenwriter (Graham Greene). But Britain’s claim on The Third Man has always seemed somewhat arbitrary. It is a film defined at every turn by internationalism, the story of an American in Vienna written and directed by Britons and produced by a Hungarian-cum-Englishman (Alexander Korda; in the U.S., the film was distributed by David O. Selznick). Perhaps it’s this internationalism that has always made The Third Man such a hard film to place, exactly, and that has also made it so unlike any other film of its time. Some of the turns of its plot resemble those of Casablanca, but it could hardly be said to deliver the same sort of uncomplicated “entertainment value” that that film does; its pleasures are far more curious, subtle, adult. At the end of the film Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles have a scene together and we’re reminded of Citizen Kane (perhaps a better point of reference than Casablanca)—but then The Third Man doesn’t resemble Kane very much, either, except perhaps in its visual boldness.
The Third Man simply is not like any other film: it is only itself. It certainly doesn’t look like other movies from 1949, American or British. Its cockeyed angles, lingering close-ups, and long takes (that final shot!) feel downright audacious when held up next to, say, Kind Hearts and Coronets or White Heat, to choose two contemporary films at random. The Third Man belongs to no particular country or cinematic tradition or genre (is it a noir or not?). It’s a patchwork movie set in a patchwork city, the fragmented Vienna of the post-war years, divided into Russian, French, British, and American zones, as seen through the baroque chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker’s cinematography and set to the wry, jangling rhythms of Anton Karas’ score.
There’s also an attention to seemingly insignificant characters and objects that one rarely sees in commercial sound cinema of this period, Hitchcock’s films being one exception. I’m thinking of the moon-faced little boy who appears at the doorway when Cotten is arguing with the porter; the cat chewing on Orson Welles’ shoelaces; the parrot that nips at Cotten’s finger; the cup of dice that Alida Valli plays with distractedly while she’s in Harry’s bedroom; the balloon seller, who looks like he has wandered over from Fritz Lang's M. The Third Man is a treasure trove of grace notes, weird props, minor players. Why is it so affecting, for example, when Paine (Bernard Lee), the Cockney sergeant and right-hand man of Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway, is shot and killed during the climactic melee in the sewers? Perhaps because it’s so unexpected (what reason has he to die?), but also perhaps because even though his part amounts to little more than a bit he’s one of the most affable and least shady person in the film—so affable, in fact, that he apologizes to Cotten’s Holly Martins right after he has socked him in the jaw. The Third Man may not be the expression of a single, identifiable auteur (a point that’s been made by Peter Bogdanovich), but there are fingerprints all over it.