Although it takes place in a fractured post-war Vienna, Carol Reed’s noir majors in collaborative cohesion.
It’s an embarrassment of riches, with Graham Greene’s bleak yet humane screenplay, Robert Krasker’s expressionist cinematography and Anton Karas’ indelibly jaunty-sad zither score all corralled into crisp shape by Reed’s urgent direction.
Granted, Orson Welles overshadows it, both as screen-stealing star and plot-wise as Harry Lime. American pulp “scribbler” Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) visits Vienna, on Lime’s invite.
Martins arrives to find his friend apparently dead, though face value deceives: his investigations uncover citywide corruption and a devilish amorality behind Lime’s impish smirk.
But Welles is only on screen for a few minutes and, in the meantime, his co-stars magnetise: a poignant Alida Valli (“I want to be dead, too…”), a brisk Trevor Howard and an in-too-deep Cotten as the man forced to confront the terrible results of his friend’s diluted-penicillin racket.
Further contributions get their due on this HD re-release, a lively new natter-track from Orson Welles fanboy Simon Callow, assistant director Guy Hamilton and “continuity girl” Angela Allen celebrating art designs, Welles’ foot doubles, Oswald Hafenrichter’s “flawless” editing and more.
Studio Canal’s image upgrade falls short of the desired sharpness but the textured darknesses in the backstreets and sewers will still suck you in.
It’s dark at heart, too: Greene’s script delivers as fast and witty entertainment, but also addresses the cost of eschewing personal moral responsibility. A masterpiece of many faces, layered and aligned to perfection.