Third Man

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man.

The other day as I walked I couldn’t stop thinking about The Third Man. Released in 1949 and directed by Carol Reed, it’s an almost-perfect movie. I’ve seen it many times and have it on DVD in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection. I was thinking about it because a “Movie Answer Man” column on Roger Ebert’s webpage informed me that director Martine Scorsese is thinking about doing a remake, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Harry Lime, the part Orson Welles played in the original.

My initial reaction was to wail with outrage, but Scorsese is one of the finest directors around and someone who might be able to pull something like this off. But it would be tough.

The original film, written by Graham Greene, tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a naïve writer of pulp Western novels with titles like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. He arrives in post-war Vienna, a city still scarred by bombs and divided into four zones by the occupying Allies forces, to take a job offered by his old school chum Harry Lime. To Holly’s shock, though, it turns out that Harry is dead, run over by a truck. Holly attends the burial, where he meets British officer Calloway (Trevor Howard), who tells him that Lime had been a notorious racketeer dealing in stolen (and diluted) penicillin. Holly, a true innocent abroad, doesn’t believe him and sets out to clear his friend’s name, but he soon learns that Vienna is no Santa Fe. (Neither is Santa Fe, apparently. “I’ve always wanted to see Texas,” says Calloway’s loyal assistant, Sergeant Paine, in a wonderful throwaway line. Paine, played by Bernard Lee–later famous as James Bond’s curmudgeonly M–is a fan of Holly’s books. “What I like about them is you can put them down and pick them up at any time,” he says, not exactly the praise an author seeks.)

 Holly looks up Harry’s old girlfriend, Anna (Valli) and asks her assistance, even as he begins to fall in love with her. Or maybe he’s in love with the idea of taking Harry’s place.  As Holly bumbles his way through old-world Vienna, he becomes convinced that a mysterious third man was present when Harry died, and that Lime’s friends–Baron Kurtz, a Romanian named Popescu, and Doctor Winkle–may know more than they let on.

They do, and Holly soon finds himself in over his head. And then one night, in a shadowy and wet Vienna street across from Anna’s apartment, he comes face to face with a dead man. It’s Harry, who hides in a doorway with only his feet visible until a light snaps on in a window across the way and illuminates his face. Harry cocks an eye at Holly, gives him a sly look, and then the light blinks out. It’s perhaps the greatest introduction of a character in film history, right up there with John Wayne’s arrival onscreen in Stagecoach. By the time Holly reaches the doorway, Harry’s gone, just a moving shadow cast up on the buildings to the sound of running feet on the cobblestones.

Turns out it that a medical orderly named Josef Harbin occupied Harry’s grave. Harry finally takes his proper place in the coffin as the film ends, brought down by a bullet Holly fires after a breathtaking chase through the Viennese sewers. Once more Anna is left to walk, alone and forlorn, from the cemetery, but this time, in one of cinema’s greatest final shots, she strides right past Holly without so much as a sideways glance.

There’s so much to love about the film. For one thing it looks fantastic, with luminous black-and-white photography that captures the crumbling grandeur of Vienna and seems more real than life itself. There’s Anton Karas’s justifiably famous zither score. And there’s Orson Welles, who is onscreen for a only few minutes but manages to steal the film, especially with his little speech after he and Holly meet on a huge Ferris wheel. “Don’t be so gloomy,” he tells Holly. “After all it’s not that awful. 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.”

I especially like that the movie keeps the courage of its convictions. “Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes,” Harry tells his hapless friend. “The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.” There are certainly no heroes in The Third Man. Not only does Holly end up killing his former friend, he fails to get the girl, too. Reportedly, American co-producer David O. Selznick wasn’t happy with the movie’s stubbornly anti-Hollywood approach to the story. For the American cut Selznick deleted some footage that made Holly look bad in a futile attempt to turn him into a more of a hero.

Above all, it’s a deliciously witty film. I love the little throwaway touches—like the way a French policeman gallantly offers Anna her lipstick as she’s being arrested. I love the balloon man who threatens to call attention to Calloway and Payne as they wait in the shadows for Harry to show up for a meeting with Holly. I love the great character turns by the actors playing the Baron, Dr. Winkle, and Popescu. Wilfrid Hyde-White turns in a wonderful comic performance as the British cultural liaison, Crabbin.

As I said, almost perfect.

So how will a remake fare? That’s what occupied my thoughts as I walked through the neighborhood. I think they should do this: They should reverse the story and tell it from Harry’s point of view. 

I can see it beginning with a pre-credit sequence as Harry and his partners kill Josef Harbin.  The sequence ends with a shot of the porter from Harry’s building, watching from a window. Then we pick up the story as Harry and perhaps a lady friend or two indulge themselves with a picnic in the cemetery, on a vantage point Lime picked so he can watch his own burial ceremony through binoculars. There is much cynical jocularity, and perhaps a word or two of obligatory, if shallow, sympathy for poor Anna. And then Harry stiffens with surprise as he gazes through the binoculars and spots his old friend Holly standing by the grave. “Good lord, what on earth is Holly doing here?” he wonders, and then he remembers. He had offered him a job. In all the excitement it had completely slipped his mind.

From his safe haven in the Russian zone Harry begins to realize that poor, blundering Holly Martins is stirring things up by raising questions that Harry would prefer remain unasked. Eventually Harry feels he must kill the porter at his old apartment building, because Holly has revealed that the old man knows too much. Harry’s partners then demand that he silence Anna, which explains why he was waiting outside her apartment the night Holly spotted him.

Harry even plans to kill Holly on the Ferris wheel, until Holly tells him the police have found Harbin’s body in Harry’s grave. As the forces of authority inexorably close in, Harry and his compatriots have a falling out, leading to a scene of betrayal and bloodshed. Harry has no place to turn, so he agrees to meet Holly, unaware that Calloway and his men are lying in wait. Once again, Harry Lime meets his destiny in the sewers of Vienna.

Shoot it in glorious black and white and you might even end up with a passable companion piece to a true classic. Marty, are you listening? I’m available.