Viennese noir: streets wet with guilt, oblique camera angles, chases through city sewers, a smiling villain whose selling of black-market diluted penicillin killed people. The finest, grimmest, gaudiest collaboration of novelist-screenwriter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed (The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana) also marked a collision of many cultural forces. To Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British officer who oversees this section of postwar Vienna, the American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a clueless cowboy, naively tainting everyone he touches. Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), the displaced beauty in whose sad eyes the stories of many lost wars can be read, rejects Holly’s ardor for the memorial love of the vanished Harry Lime (Orson Welles). This charismatic scoundrel is believed buried, so why does Holly keep glimpsing the shadow of the third man? We might also ask why a film so bleak and desperate plays out to the jaunty thrum of Anton Karas’ zither music. Perhaps to give this nightmare bedtime story the lilt of a contemporary fable. Its particulars are tragic but its telling strangely tonic — not just in Welles’ grinning apparition, like a Cheshire cat wanted for mass murder, but also in the sordid verve of Robert Krasker’s cinematography. Even the last, long shot in a graveyard, as Anna strolls defiantly past a waiting Holly, is a joke of cinematic geometry, as if the Road Runner had strolled instead of zoomed past a Wile E. Coyote destined to be disappointed.
SEE: The original All-TIME 100 Movies list