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The Third Man

At the Brattle through Tuesday

By Robert W. Gordon

Although The Third Man is not taken from one of Graham Greene's nastier novels, it is still hard to emerge from it without feeling shaken and upset. The reason is that Carol Reed, who directed it, is clearly a man of as little charity as Greene himself. Rather than resting content with what is, after all, a superb suspense story, he has chosen to exploit the resources of the novel's darker regions with a rather cruel thoroughness.

Admittedly, one is free enough to say the hell with the darker regions. The Third Man is mostly about Vienna, about a postwar Vienna that has been bornbed, divided into zones of occupation, and infected (as it is still) with espionage agents and black marketeers. In spite of things that endure, like highly stylized theatre and the ferris wheel in the Prater (both of which appear, naturally, in the film), it is above all the city of which people say: it is not what it used to be. It is, as innumerable shots of blasted buildings and crafty workmen constantly suggest, very much what George Orwell meant when he talked about "the ancient boneheap of Europe."

The film draws one onto the boneheap: you recognize immediately the rules that everybody in Vienna understands. You know, for example, that there are three sorts of people: The authorities--the police and the military--who tramp about in heavy boots to make sudden arrests; the racketeers, who murder each other and keep the populace content with illicit tires and cigarettes; the mass of inhabitants, who prefer not to meddle with the dangerous affairs of bureaucracy or black markets. All of them, of course, are very well accustomed to evil.

Some of them, like Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who runs an unimagineably disagreeable trade involving the maiming of small children, are direct apologists for evil. And Anna (Alida Valli), the woman who loves him, must sympathize with it; the British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) whose job is to erase it, has to be callous, scheming, and often unjust. Powerfully appealing characters as they are, they appear as agents of Greenes' famous preoccupation with the inescapable sordidness of sin in the modern world.

Into this world ventures an energetic, bumbling innocent of a hero, who has evidently never had much to do with the concerns either of Vienna or of Graham Greene. In only three days he violates a central rule (if you're not part of the machinery, don't meddle with it), and encounters a bewildering set of ethical dilemmas that the film's ingenious plot structure lays before him all at once. The principles of the Westerns he writes for a living seem inadequate to cope with the question of whether to give up a friend to the police. Scene after scene batters him about until at last, when he decides, it is by no means obvious that his decision is thought to be a morally correct one; if evil may be found in every motion of society, in love even, a moral standard has become impossible.

It is an extremely disturbing, and for the moment convincing, view of the world--and it can't be ignored absolutely. But not surprisingly, the guts of The Third Man are in its plot, acting, and photography, and because there must be few who have not seen it at least twice, let me say dogmatically that they have rarely been matched since the film was made. Welles, in particular, who appears only briefly to gaze from the ferris wheel and to run through the sewers in the last and most climactic chase, performs as the smoothest and most attractive monster conceivable. He and a memorable zither tune will ensure that The Third Man continues to reappear.

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