Carol Reed directs Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles in this Graham Greene scripted thriller about a pulp novelist who arrives in post-war Vienna to find his friend is dead and the story of his demise has an inconsistent third person involved.
Before WWII, your 39 Steps or Riddle of the Sands had a hero lost in circumstance, scrabbling to get ahead of international intrigues. After VE Day, with the arrival of Greene, Len Deighton and John Le Carre, you’d be lucky to get a good guy. And if you did, like here, he’d be so bumbling, useless and counter intuitive to what anyone else wanted to achieve that he pretty much jams up everyone he cares about on his crusade to find that titular shadowy figure. Of course, we all know who that mysterious Third Man is. We’ve seen his face lit by a treacherous pool of window light, know his opinion on the Swiss and have read his legendary name in the credits. Orson’s third act unveiling is no surprise, no twist. What a callous bastard he is though is the true shock. Handsome… impish… charming but fuck me you wouldn’t want to be on a big wheel with the door unlocked around him. Everything about this screams perfection; Reed’s trademark Dutch angles, beautiful Alida Valli walking through the cemetery, Anton Karras’ iconic zither theme (note the credit sequence of strings being plucked by an unknown hand) and that wonderful narration… Carol Reed’s own voice wistfully telling us “I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay…” This is about as good as it gets.
Perfect Double Bill: Odd Man Out (1947)
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