“You writers live too much out of the world.”
-from Graham Greene’s THE THIRD MAN as brilliantly voiced by James Mason. Accept no substitutes, the James Mason audio-book reading of this seminal screenplay, turned film, turned book, turned radio series, turned audiobook, is as good as it gets. Get your copy here.
I love a lot of movies, but there is not a movie I love more than the Carol Reed directed, Graham Greene written, and Orson Welles influenced and driven… THE THIRD MAN.
What’s most amazing about THE THIRD MAN is that in a world where most things do not adapt well, in every iteration , in ever medium THE THIRD MAN has been expanded to it has proved to be the best of its kind. One of the best films of all time? yes. One Of the best novellas?yes. One of the best scores? yes. One of the best Old Time Radio Shows? Yes. One of the best Audio Books? yes (James Mason version, avoid the other versions with inferior performers). It speaks of a source, a pure, strong source, that resists dilution, and remains, if you are fateful to it, in any medium… masterful and a triumph.
And its source is the film, fleshed out from the frame of Greene’s screenplay.
Welles’ impact on the direction of this film is either exaggerated or understated depending who you ask or what you read. I fall in the latter camp. As something of an Orson Welles adherent and aficionada who discovered this film on the heels of discovering the rest of Welles groundbreaking filmography it was impossible not to see the hand of Welles winding through this film like a river.
Largely because no one ever had to direct Orson Welles, because bringing inately his background of writer, director, and star to a role he imbued it with a life beyond the written page, and that was never truer than in his role as Harry Lime.
An honest writer will tell you that a great actor can elevate the written character. Robert Parksr will tell you that is what Avery Brooks did for his character of Hawk, Walter Mosely would say that is what Lawrence Fishburne did for his character of Socrates Fortlow, and without question that is what Orson Welles did for Graham Greene’s Harry Lime, he made it for all time… into Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.
And time has since given me a great appreciation for the filmography of Carol Reed, with movies like ODD MAN OUT (1947), THE FALLEN IDOL (1948), THE THIRD MAN and OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS (1951) in his filmography, it is impossible not to consider Carol Reed not just one of the greatest post war directors, but a great director period. Just the four films cited above, done back to back from 1947 to 1951 (and I implore you to see OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS, the least known of Reed’s films, I found it magnificent. Easily superior to THE FALLEN IDOL, and as haunting and great as ODD MAN OUT) is as impressive a run of films as any director has pulled off.
However all that praise acknowledged, THE THIRD MAN is a notch beyond even Reed’s best films, and the reason for the difference is clear, it’s the presence of Welles at the top of his game bringing wit and charm and playful irony to it. Directing and dialoging himself at the least, and potentially other actors. Without Welles you may get a geat film, but you don’t get the masterpiece that THE THIRD MAN has become.
Though it can be argued the other way as well, that THE THIRD MAN is a notch beyond even Welles’ best films. I adore CITIZEN KANE (1941), MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943), THE STRANGER (1946), LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), [ honorable mention to the brilliant TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1945)], TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), and while as a whole superior to the output of Carol Reed, they are not superior to THIRD MAN. Which argues that without Carol Reed steering the ship, you may get a great film, but you don’t get the masterpiece that is THE THIRD MAN.
So in summation THE THIRD MAN, the ultimate film, becomes the ultimate example of cinema that is more than the sum of its parts. And when the parts are at the top of their game as Reed, Welles, Graham, Zaras, Cotton are here, what you get is cinema elevated to the state of lasting art.
Here on the 66th Anniversary of the THIRD MAN, let’s celebrate the films and the filmmakers that went into paving the way for cinema’s quintessential film.
Feel free to contact back with your take on the films and filmmakers covered. Especially if new to any of the films. Always interested in how modern eyes approach these classic films.
Final Grade for THE THIRD MAN… do you even have to ask? It’s an A+.