Monday, 23 August 2010

Dark Vienna

Last year I went to a sixtieth anniversary screening of The Third Man, arguably the best example of British film noir ever made. I’d seen it before on television but that’s a poor substitute for the full movie experience. Directed by Carol Reed on the basis of a screenplay by Graham Greene, it has some really super performances by such people as Orson Wells, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. Even the minor parts are terribly well done.

I love everything about it. It’s an intelligent movie for intelligent people, a contrast with so many mainstream thrillers now, with poor plotting and limp dialogue, inadequate settings for a succession of boom bang special effects. Everything about The Third Man is so good - the script, the atmosphere, the expressionist mood, the historical setting, the black and white cinematography; even the jaunty zither score!

I don’t need to retell the story; it’s too well known. Sufficient to say that the action takes place in post-War Vienna, a city still under four power occupation, a city where racketeering is a way of life, a dangerous city, a city where the step between life and death is all too brief. Into this mix comes Harry Lime, brilliantly played by Orson Welles, a bad man, a vicious man, but a man impossible to hate. For me Lime will always be the one truly great anti-hero of British cinema.

The camera angles, the cutting and the use of light and shade even now appear slightly revolutionary; they must have been a real sensation in 1949, especially for an English audience not familiar with the masterpieces of German Expressionism. The screen play is also filled with some really memorable lines, my personal favourite being an observation by Lime;

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, 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.

This is an historical travesty, given Switzerland’s role in European affairs at the time of the Borgias, but a delicious travesty from a delicious movie! You can keep the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm; I would far rather have the dark Vienna, the exciting Vienna; the Vienna of Harry Lime!


  1. Brilliant--review! But that's Sir Carol Reed :-) One of my favourites--I remember seeing that anniversary screening at BFI Southbank. That's the only place to see any 70mm film for the same reason that even a more intimate film like The Third Man is best served on a large screen.

  2. By the way--the scene where the old balloon man interrupts in the midst of the big finale...classic piece of subtle cinema. Classic Reed.
    I assume you've seen The Fallen Idol and The Man Between?

  3. i have watched this movie twice: first time long time ago in china with chinese translation and second time a few months ago. it was brilliant!
    and brilliant review of course! i like your use of words such as "significant nothing" (used for your previous post?)!

  4. Oh you should do--Fallen Idol was a Graham Greene story and The Man Between featured my favourite actor(well one of my favourites anyway) James Mason. Why it's not harolded to the same degree as The Third Man is a mystery to me. One of the best if not THE BEST endings in all of film.

  5. Adam, I'll try and track them down. Amazon and I are such close friends. :-)

  6. Ah very good. I've just checked and The Man Between, much to my delight is available from an independent seller

    The other is readily available. I honestly haven't a clue why The Man Between is spoken of so little and known so little. It's truly a staggeringly brilliant film and by such a well known director no less--starring one of the finest actors in film.

    Oh and I think you said you've read Greene's novel but you must see the film version of Brighton Rock as well.

    This one is quite readily available at this point--again a brilliant film....almost makes one proud to be Anglo-Saxon...oh sorry, I nearly chocked on my confit of duck and spilt my claret....bloody French, what have they ever given us???

  7. :-)) Yes, I've seen the Dickie Attenborough version of Brighton Rock.

  8. Ah very good, now I said you enjoyed it but just not the extent to which you did the novel...fair enough--I think they're both brilliant.