In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.
An out of work pulp fiction novelist, Holly Martins, arrives in a post war Vienna divided into sectors by the victorious allies, and where a shortage of supplies has led to a flourishing black market. He arrives at the invitation of an ex-school friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job, only to discover that Lime has recently died in a peculiar traffic accident. From talking to Lime's friends and associates Martins soon notices that some of the stories are inconsistent, and determines to discover what really happened to Harry Lime.Written by
Mark Thompson <email@example.com>
This film tops the "BFI 100", a list of 100 of "the best British films ever" compiled by the British Film Institute (in 1999/2000). Paradoxically, it is also included (at #57) on the American Film Institute's Top 100 American films" list compiled in 1996. See more »
When Holly Martins first encounters Harry Lime across the street in a darkened doorway, he doesn't know who it is and he yells out, "What kind of a spy do you think you are satchel foot?" When he says this line, you can clearly see that he is not saying anything at all. See more »
Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs - it's the same thing. They have their five-year plans, so have I.
You used to believe in God.
Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here, poor devils.
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Although I am as old as this movie, produced in 1949, I have not aged nearly as well. This film, directed brilliantly by Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol) and written by Graham Greene, who created a long list of memorable cinematic scripts, ingeniously captures the prevailing atmosphere of disruption and chaos that Vienna, a once highly civilized city, experienced during the years that followed World War II. The upheaval is physical, social, economic, political, moral, spiritual. You name it. Vanquished Vienna, conquered by the Allies, was crippled by turmoil in every imaginable way, and we viewers are given the opportunity to experience it up close, right here.
I spent a number of months in Europe after I graduated from college in 1971. Although the war had been over for more than 25 years by then, I was struck by a very pronounced attitude of cynicism on the part of many Europeans regarding uniquely American ideals and principles, which were widely considered to be naive. To me, this film accurately captures this cultural and moral conflict, which lasted for decades and may even survive to this day. "You and your American principles," they would often scoff at me with mocking derision.
What does Anna (Alida Valli) know about the illegal activities of her lover, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), which includes the sale of diluted penicillin to Vienna's hospitals? For children with meningitis, watered down penicillin was not only useless, but it created an immunity from full strength penicillin so that these afflicted children could never receive effective treatment. Corrupted penicillin is a glaring symbol of a totally corrupted Vienna. Harry surely understands the consequences of his business, but what about Anna? Even after the truth about Harry's conduct is clearly revealed to her, she still sticks by him to the bitter end. Love conquers all? Stand by your man, regardless of he misery that he is causing to his innocent victims? Seriously? While I don't blame her for rejecting the romantic overtures of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is somewhat of a schnook, what's with her anyway? She reminds me of the Europeans who never once caught a whiff of the burning flesh from the crematoria of the concentration camps that sat just down the road from where they lived, as if the ill wind never blew in their direction. She is deeply in love with Harry, so just shut up about children with meningitis. OK, Anna, whatever you say, sweetheart. Perhaps those silly 18th century costume comedies in which you appear will provide the escape from reality that you so desperately seek. At least you manage to crack a weak, forced smile on stage, which is the only smile that we will ever see from you.
From beginning to end, the unusual camera angles, the dark, somber, haunting sidewalks of Vienna, and those eerie, drenched cobblestone streets contribute to the overall foreboding atmosphere of the film, which was remarkably photographed by Australian Robert Krasker (Odd Man Out, Brief Encounter). Unforgettable images and characters appear before us, emphasizing an overall mood of mayhem and unpredictability from every direction. We witness, for example, Anna's landlady, draped in a bedspread for warmth and deeply distressed by the disruptive invasion of her house by "officials" representing not one foreign nation but four of them. Then we observe one of those ludicrous, bureaucratic "cultural re-education conferences" offered to the Viennese by the allied victors, presumably to rehabilitate them after seven years of Nazi domination. And from where in God's creation did the balloon seller come as he pathetically peddles his merry merchandise on the dark, abandoned streets of Vienna, which are not only completely void of children at the time but of people in general?
And what of the inquisitive, confused character of Holly Martins, played with the usual, smooth agility of Joseph Cotten? As the writer of mass marketed western novels that even the young British sergeant happens to read, why is he broke, and what kind of job would Lime have offered him in an unfamiliar, German-speaking Vienna that is gripped by post World War II disorder, unemployment, and foreign occupation? Construction work, perhaps.
While some reviewers disliked the zither music of Anton Karas, I think that the unique sound contributes to the general atmosphere of nervous tension and uneasiness that saturates the air throughout the duration of the movie. Would you prefer Strauss waltzes instead? They wouldn't be nearly as effective in conveying the overwhelming atmosphere of chaos, even insanity, that plagues Vienna at the time on so many levels.
Finally, we are brought to the hidden network of grand Vienna's underground sewers. What could be a more fitting symbol of the underlying nastiness that lurks beneath the thin, shallow surface of what we call "civilization"? This subterranean labyrinth provides the perfect setting for the ending of an extraordinary film that very effectively portrays a world that has succumbed to a state of disorder, misery, and even madness. In the end, the sewer awaits. Bal-loon?
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