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Not All's Welles

[whitespace] Orson Welles A Twist of Lime: As shady character Harry Lime, Orson Welles dupes a friend into an unsavory scheme in 'The Third Man.'

The 50th anniversary release of 'The Third Man' shows that there's more to the movie than Orson Welles' smiling villain

By Richard von Busack

ANOTHER BETRAYAL BY Orson Welles. "I guess I was what you'd nowadays call a stooge," says Jedediah Leland, played by Joseph Cotten, in Citizen Kane. In the 1949 thriller The Third Man, Cotten plays Holly Martins, once again as hapless as a rabbit in a magician's hands. The replaying of the broken friendship from Citizen Kane is just one of the pleasures of director Carol Reed's The Third Man. The film's script counts as one of author Graham Greene's "entertainments," books he separated from his more serious, morally instructive work. Compared to the tormented Catholic metaphysics of some of Greene's other works, though, The Third Man is a much more interesting study of the allure of evil. Its casual betrayal sounds the opening note in the Cold War to come: the despair of John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the efficient brutality of the early 007. The film, a finalist on most lists of the best movies ever, is being rereleased in honor of its 50th anniversary.

But, really, who needs an anniversary to see this classic again?

Anton Karas' famous "The Third Man Theme" accompanies scenes of a ruined Vienna right after World War II--"bombed about a bit," says the anonymous narrator, dryly. The Big Four powers, France, the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and Germany, quartered Vienna like a pie. Into this disputed city comes Holly Martins, an undistinguished writer of pulp Westerns. Martins has been offered a job by his disreputable chum from boarding-school days, Harry Lime (Welles). The writer arrives to find that Lime has just been hit by a truck and killed. The British authorities are eager to send Martins home, which makes him suspicious. His investigations suggest that there was a third man at the scene of the fatal accident, a missing man who could explain Lime's death.

Here's the blueprint for a standard film noir: corrupt town, sinister police and tough hero. But the blueprint is discarded: our hero is clumsy, bad with his fists. He doesn't hold his liquor well. Vienna is seen in drunk-vision. ("Dutch angles" is the technical term for the slanted vistas Reed uses.) The pale, lurid faces loom up into the eye of the camera, in exactly the way someone might get into a drunken man's face.

Martins hooks up with Lime's mourning girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli). But Martins doesn't bring the girl help, just more trouble. The disappearance of Lime begins to look less like a killing and more like a ruse. And Martins learns, to his chagrin, that Lime was involved in a vicious and dirty racket.

Eventually, Martins' inquiries flush Harry out. In one of the most famous scenes in the movie, Lime takes Martins for a ride on the tall Vienna Ferris wheel and explains to him his view of history. It's a pop version of Matthew 4:8, an image of the devil showing off all the opportunities in the world from a height.

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Whither the Zither? Richard von Busack discusses the musical theme of 'The Third Man.'

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As an added attraction to revisit The Third Man, some 11 minutes of footage from the original British version have been added on--a first for American audiences. This edition varies in a few details. When The Third Man was cut for the U.S., the trimming was done scene by scene, in chunks of less than a minute. The narrator in this anniversary version is Carol Reed, not Cotten. We also glimpse a daring (for 1949) scene of a stripper at the Casanova Club. It had perhaps never been quite so clear that two of the peripheral characters, Dr. Winkel and Baron Kurtz, are not only unindicted co-conspirators, but lovers.

Also, two important scenes are restored to their original length: first, the return of Harry Lime from the presumed dead as he strides across the grounds of a deserted amusement park; second, an equally famous scene of Anna walking across a cemetery, under trees shedding their last leaves. Both scenes deserve extra time, extra contemplation.

Critic Michael Sragow has made a typically fine argument in The New York Times in favor of Joseph Cotten's Martins as the focus of the English version: "Adults who have managed to balance their fantasy lives with real ones will be drawn to Martins, with his amorous sloppiness and his awkward efforts to do good." Certainly, Cotten is a neglected actor, whose roles in the best films of Welles, Hitchcock and King Vidor should have made his name more famous than it is. And, as Sragow notes, video stores often file The Third Man under the works of Welles. That's a little unjust. The Third Man's assistant director, Guy Hamilton, is quoted in Adrian Turner's new book on Goldfinger as saying, "Welles had bugger-all to do with the direction."

Welles always laid the credit at the feet of Reed and producer Alexander Korda. Welles, planning his film version of Othello, was just in the show for a quick paycheck. Before filming began, Welles made himself as scarce as Harry Lime himself. Welles had endured one too many fruitless meetings with Korda. ("I thought, if they really want me for this, they're going to have to chase me," Welles said later.) When he did sign on for the work, Welles protested unmanfully about the climactic chase scenes in the cavernous sewers of Vienna. Hamilton, who has a grudge, recalls Welles moaning about the cold and the possibility of disease, and says that the actor/director vanished before the final shots.

Still, it's significant that Welles wrote his own dialogue for the Ferris-wheel scenes. ("The kids used to ride in this a lot in the old days. Of course, they haven't got the money now, poor devils.") And if it weren't for Welles, I doubt that The Third Man would have the reputation it has now. Certainly the film would be remembered for its style, as is Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). That James Mason thriller is a study for this masterpiece, with its own delirium-stricken scenes of Belfast at night. Some would love The Third Man for its hallucinatory night-for-night shots, its images of a smashed city, with its spilled cobblestones, broken staircases and contorted statues. I suspect, without Welles' lightness, none of this would have pleased as many people as The Third Man has pleased. Here is, after all, Martins, staked out, like you'd stake out a goat to catch a tiger; here also is Anna, a female lead who has suicide written all over her.

It's Welles who gives the movie its great pleasures and its elegant morality. His Lime, that great embodiment of fascinating fascism, provides the thrill of at last seeing the enemy in your periscope. When Welles turns up, illuminated in the beam of a car headlight, "he gave the impression of stepping out of his own life," commented critic Andre Bazin. For any movie fan, the blazing of Welles' Man in the Moon face is an emotional moment. Welles is missed like a dead friend, too, and we have plenty to remind ourselves of him, in the way his devices and ideas turn up throughout the pessimistic side of the American cinema. For example, isn't there an echo of Welles' little Halloween prank in the deliberate fraudulence of The Blair Witch Project? Yes, The Third Man without Orson Welles would be like Alice in Wonderland without its own Cheshire Cat.

The Third Man, like Citizen Kane, is a story of an American who only wants love on his own terms: "The only terms anyone understands," said Charles Foster Kane, which is just what Harry Lime would say. Citizen Kane shows the underside of populism. Cotten's Leland explains that his ex-friend Kane is a man who considers liberty a gift he can give the people. (Inevitably, Ted Turner, the man who owns Citizen Kane, misread the message of Kane on the American Film Institute broadcast this year. Turner summed up the moral, in not so many words, as "be nice to people or you'll end up dying alone.")

By contrast, The Third Man hints at the mistakes America was going to make in the next 50 years. It is about the failure of the best intentions and the success of the worst ones. Martins, a good man who gets in over his head, is a symbol of American foreign interventions gone wrong. And Lime: Lime is every spook who did evil in the name of free enterprise. Lime's treacherous smirk foretells the entire ugly history of the Cold War, all of its cost, its lies and its degradation.


The Third Man (Unrated; 104 min.), directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene, photographed by Robert Krasker and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles, opens Friday at the Towne Theatre in San Jose.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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