Joseph Cotten holds a peculiar place in movie history. He was a charismatic and bankable movie star in the forties, and he was a fine actor and an all-around nice guy, but he lived most of his adult life, and will likely live throughout the ages, in the shadow of his friend Orson Welles. Even though Cotten was the bigger star, Welles was somehow the bigger presence. This was never more obvious than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a masterpiece of film noir and perhaps the biggest success of either actor’s career.
Based on the novel by Graham Green (who also wrote the screenplay) The Third Man tells the story of an American pulp novelist named Holly Martins (Cotten) who travels to Vienna after WWII to meet up with an old friend named Harry Lime (Welles). Upon arriving, however, Martins discovers that Lime has been killed in a hit and run accident. At the funeral, he meets a beautiful young woman named Anna (played by Alida Valli), the one person who seems truly upset by Lime’s death. He also meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) the army official in charge of policing the English section of Vienna. Calloway is not upset by Lime’s death. In fact, he has some gruesome news for Martins: Harry Lime was a criminal—no, worse, Harry Lime was a downright villain.
The exact details of Lime’s crimes, and the events that unfold as Martins begins to look into the curious events surrounding his friend’s death are one of the pleasures of the film, so I’ll avoid getting too specific about plot points. In way, though, the chief pleasure of the film isn’t the story at all but the milieu and the magnificent direction of Carol Reed. The Third Man is, simply put, one of the most beautiful films ever made. Reed shoots at slanted angles, rarely going for a conventional shot when he can visually approximate the unsettled nature of Cotten’s descent into the European criminal underworld. His main collaborator is cinematographer Robert Krasker, whose work here is not just beautiful, it is a flawless use of the medium of black and white film. There may be no better argument for the superior artistry of black and white than this movie.