One of those movies that I sort of thought I knew, from having seen clips over and over on various “best of” shows but, when the final scene was featured on Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, I realised I hadn’t really watched at all. So no massive surprises, in terms of plot but then the biggest twist in the film, the revelation that Harry is alive, is one of the most famous scenes in all cinema so it was a bit much to hope to be surprised by the story.
The opening credits feature the most famous and catchy piece of zither music in all… well, ever, really. After watching this film, I suspect almost anyone would be humming it for weeks. The first proper scene, of immediate post-war Berlin, is accompanied by a voiceover that is part documentary narration, part dry and sardonic commentary on the whole story. The narrator is a character in himself but takes no part in the main part of the action, merely describing how Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer of Westerns, arrives in post-war Vienna at the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime. On arrival, Holly is just in time to attend Harry’s funeral but then meets British officer, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who tells Holly that his friend was involved in racketeering of the worst kind, stealing, adulterating and selling medicines and thus condemning great numbers of people to lingering, painful and needless deaths. Holly also meets Harry’s girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli) who has not been treated too well by Harry but nonetheless remains loyal. Like Holly, Anna wants to believe the best of Harry, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And Harry’s death appears suspicious.
I began watching this almost as a duty, to see it properly. I expected it to be good but it really was tremendous. Even knowing the major plot-points and the general trajectory of the film didn’t spoil it for me, as the telling of it was so expertly done. As a portrait of a particular, and particularly interesting, point in history it had something to offer and the climactic chase through the rubble of Vienna, into the sewers, was brilliantly tense. And, from Graham Greene, there are themes and subtleties to explore within it.
Anyone interested in film really ought to watch this.