Something was rotten in postwar Vienna, but it wasn’t Graham Greene’s brilliant screenplay.
The most depressing movie irony is that American longhairs—raised on the non-literary naturalism of Tom Mix, Fairbanks, and movies like Public Enemy, along with the revolutionary Griffith, Sennett, Keaton—continue to coddle and encourage European directors in their burnt-out sentimentality and aesthetic cowardice. Carol Reed’s The Third Man (the short happy life of Orson Welles, who, having killed or crazed half of Vienna by black-marketing diluted penicillin, evades the police by playing dead) is one import in which the virtuosity is tied in with a spectacular control and verve. Its intricate, precocious use of space, perspective, types of acting (stylized, distorted, understated, emotionalized) and random, seemingly irrelevant subject matter, enlarges and deepens both the impression of a marred city and a sweet, amoral villain (Welles) who seems most like a nearly satiated baby at the breast. But it bears the usual foreign trademarks (pretentious camera, motorless design, self-conscious involvement with balloon hawker, prostitute, porter, belly dancer, tramp) over-elaborated to the point of being a monsterpiece. It uses such tiresome symbol-images as a door which swings with an irritating rhythm as though if had a will of its own; a tilted camera that leaves you feeling you have seen the film from a fetal position; fiendish composing in Vuillard’s spotty style, so that the screen crawls with patterns, textures, hulking shapes, a figure becoming less important than the moving ladder of shadow passing over it.
The Third Man’s murky, familiar mood springs chiefly from Graham Greene’s script, which proves again that he is an uncinematic snob who has robbed the early Hitchcock of everything but his genius. Living off tension maneuvers which Hitchcock wore out, Greene crosses each event with one bothersome nonentity (a Crisco-hipped porter; schmoo-faced child) tossed in without insight, so that the script crawls with annoying bugs. While a moony, honest American (Joe Cotten) unearths facts of Welles’s death, Greene is up to his old trick of showing a city’s lonely strays blown about the terrain by vague, evil forces. Greene’s famous low sociology always suggests a square’s condescension and ignorance. He sets Cotten up for quaint laughs by characterizing him as a pulp-writer, having the educated snipe at him in unlikely fashion (“I never knew there were snake-charmers in Texas”) and the uneducated drool over him; every allusion to Cotten’s Westerns, from their titles to their format, proves that no one behind the movie ever read one. Greene’s story, a string of odd-sized talky scenes with no flow within or between them, is like a wheelless freight train.
But Reed manages to turn the last half of this tired script into a moving experience of a three-dimensional world in which life is sad, running simply from habit, and ready to be swept away by street cleaners. In Reed’s early films The Stars Look Down, Three on a Weekend sordid domesticity scored in a pokey, warm, unbiased way; in the daylight scenes of Third Man, his paterfamilias touch with actors is tied to a new depersonalizing use of space that leaves his characters rattling loose like solitary, dismal nuts and bolts in vaulting landscapes. A beautiful finale—Welles’s girl Valli returning from his burial down a Hobbema avenue of stark trees—picks up the gray, forlorn dignity of a cold scene and doubles the effect by geometrically pinpointing the figure and moving her almost mechanically through space and finally into and around the camera. Reed has picked up a new toy-soldier treatment of conversations, where the juxtapositions and movements are articulated like watch-cogs, each figure isolated and contrastingly manipulated till the movie adds up to a fractured, nervous vista of alienation in which people move disparately, constantly circling, turning away, and going off into their own lost world. But the movie’s almost antique, enervated tone comes from endless distance shots with poetically caught atmosphere and terrain, glimpses of languid, lachrymose people sweeping or combing their hair, and that limp Reed manner with actors, which makes you feel you could push a finger straight through a head, and a sweater or a hat has as much warmth and curiosity as the person wearing it.
Always a soft director, Reed turns to chickenfat on night scenes, where his love of metallically shining cobble stones, lamps that can hit a face at eighty paces, and the mysterious glow at every corner turns the city into a stage-set that even John Ford would have trouble out-glamorizing. For instance, endless shots of Cotten and Welles sliding baseball-fashion in rubbled wastelands that look like Mt. Everest touched up by an MGM art director. Both are seen only momentarily in these wastes because it is obvious no human could make the descent without supplies. Reed is seldom convinced that anything artistic is being said unless the scene looks like a hock-shop. Scenes are engulfed in teddy bears, old photographs, pills; a character isn’t considered unless he is pin-pointed in a panorama of baroque masonry, seen bird fashion through bridge struts or rat fashion through table legs; like most current art movies Reed’s are glued to majestic stairways.
The movie’s verve comes from the abstract use of a jangling zither and from squirting Orson Welles into the plot piece-meal with a tricky, facetious eyedropper. The charm, documentary skill, and playful cunning that fashioned this character make his Morse Code appearances almost as exciting visually as each new make-believe by Rembrandt in his self-portraits. The cunning is in those glimpses—somewhat too-small shoes, a distant figure who is a bit too hard and resilient, a balloon man, not Welles but flamboyant enough to suggest his glycerine theatricality in other films—that seem so Wellesian, tell so much about him, yet just miss being Welles. Through camera tricks and through a non-mobile part custom-built for this actor (whose flabby body and love of the over-polished effect make any flow in his performance seem a product of the bloodiest rehearsing), Welles achieves in brief, wonderful moments the illusion of being somebody besides Welles. Two of these—some face-making in a doorway, a slick speech about the Borgias that ends with a flossy exit—rate with entertaining bits like Paul Kelly’s in Crossfire and the time Bob Hope tried to hide behind a man taking a shower in a glass cubicle. Reed’s nervous, hesitant film is actually held together by the wires of its exhilarating zither, which sounds like a trio and hits one’s consciousness like a cloudburst of sewing needles. Raining aggressive notes around the characters, it chastises them for being so inactive and fragmentary, and gives the story the unity and movement it lacks.