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.