BP Saturday Night at the Movies: The Third Man (1949)

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 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 – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly. — Harry Lime

The most famous quote from a film packed with good lines. Orson Welles’ entrance into the story is so well-known, so famous for perhaps being the most dramatic reveal in cinema, that it surprised me when I realized that his name is third-billed in the opening credits. These days, that would qualify as a spoiler alert, with every armchair analyst simply waiting for Welles to show up.  But audiences 60 years ago weren’t as jaded, weren’t so adept at reverse-engineering movies.

Seeing it again (and appreciating it more than ever), I was struck by how ineffectual Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins is. He doesn’t solve the mystery. He can’t win the girl. He’s a complete failure at the lecture he delivers. Moreover, Martins knows exactly who he is. He knows he’s a two-bit writer of “cheap novellas,” just as he knows, deep down, he can’t compete with Lime for the heart of Anna Schmidt.

His burst of romanticism (desperation? hope? opportunism?) at the end, when he asks Calloway to stop the jeep so he can await Anna is the story’s harshest judgment of him. She does not suffer fools–and unfortunately, Holly, even as the film’s protagonist–is a fool, held in contempt by just about everyone in the story. And the man who holds the highest opinion of him is the man he ultimately betrays.

The film is beautiful in its stubborn refusal to depart from its gloomy, post-war worldview. According to Wikipedia, Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay, wanted a happier ending for Holly and Anna, but that was vetoed by producer David O. Selznick and director Carol Reed. Very similar to the dispute 2o years later between Robert Towne and Roman Polanski in Chinatown. The directors were right in both cases.


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