i first saw Carol Reed's "The Third Man" on late-night television, during one of the spates of classic film watching with which I whiled away my early teens. It struck me as startlingly real, defying both the dreamy, confected world of the rest of the '30s and '40's movies I'd been devouring and the sullen, rebellious romanticism film had inherited from the '60s. It seemed like the creation of a sensibility terribly old and wise, and most of all very European; it was the very essence of world-weary sophistication. In it, Holly Martins, an American author of pulp westerns -- played by Joseph Cotten, tall, brash and handsome -- arrives in post-World War II Vienna expecting to meet an old buddy, Harry Lime. Lime, it turns out, has just been killed in an automobile accident, and Martins decides there's something fishy about the situation, something that only a bright, irreverent Yankee has the wherewithal to uncover.
Based on Graham Greene's novel, with a screenplay also written by Greene, "The Third Man" boasts his trademark of moral confusion coupled with a devious plot. Reed gives the movie a weird, exhausted, paranoid atmosphere in which the rest of the characters observe Holly's "investigation" with the impassive tolerance of adults humoring a deluded child. The skewed frames; the gnomish middle-aged Viennese with their myriad secrets, tiny dogs and fussy clothes; the inky, cobblestone streets and the interiors -- whether battered or ornate, they're always strangely hollow -- combine to make a menacing, alien environment where Holly is immediately, and obliviously, over his head.
As Harry, Orson Welles shows how easily Holly's energy and initiative could curdle into evil if only he were a bit smarter, too smart in fact, for anyone's good. Harry's satanic charm -- he gets the movie's best speech, a jaunty bit about the art of the Medicis vs. the Swiss and their cuckoo clocks -- gives the movie just enough additional gas to power it through its famous sewer chase with that gorgeous, indelible shot of Harry's fingers reaching through the grate.
Holly may be the protagonist of "The Third Man" (such a movie could never have a "hero," or for that matter even an "antihero"), but (Alida) Valli, as Anna, Harry's grieving lover, is its soul. Playing a principled woman who learns that the man she loved was entirely bad, and that even this doesn't matter in the end, Valli has a dignity seldom afforded to women in movies -- her inner life surpasses those of the men around her. If the bruised-little-boy heart of noir finally grew up, it might wear a face as beautiful and sad as hers. The sewer chase may be the most famous sequence in "The Third Man," but I've always remembered her cool, solitary walk down the long graveyard road at the movie's end, her deliberate indifference to Holly's offer of comfort. It's the walk of a woman who knows herself, however painful that knowledge, and she stands taller than any cowboy.