The director of the Third Man is Carol Reed. He made other good movies, including (good grief!) Oliver!, but he never before or after made anything to touch the perfection of this one supreme achievement. It's like the fortunate stars came together in his horoscope just this once. He got Graham Greene as his writer, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten- both playing a blinder- as his actors and he happened upon a cafe musician called Anton Karas who provided him with the most haunting theme in cinema history. There's something supernatural about how right everything is. The leading lady is an almost untried teenager called Valli. She'd done nothing much before and she did nothing much after but here she's pitch-perfect. Most great movies have something wrong with them- even if its only a passage of crap back projection or an off-key performance by a supporting actor, but The Third Man just shines from start to finish. And we're not just talking negative perfection. This is a movie that takes risks- as with that zither music, as with a final shot that lasts forever and delivers an unforgettable emotional punch, as with what is perhaps the most exciting chase sequence ever filmed...
So last night I watched one of Reed's earlier movies. Some critics say it's better than the Third Man. It's not. It couldn't be. But maybe it's richer. It's called Odd Man Out and stars James Mason as a dying IRA man on the run in a wintry Belfast. Where the Third Man is a masterpiece of stylistic control- icy, baroque, noir- Odd Man Out wallows from style to style. It 's a mess. It starts off as social realism and winds up as a fever dream. And the performances are all over the place. At one end of the spectrum we have the admirable underplaying of Kathleen Ryan as Mason's lover and Robert Beatty as his second-in command and at the other F.J. McCormick and Robert Newton as a couple of bulgy-eyed, Dickensian grotesques. Mason's own performance falls somewhere in the middle. He stalks, he staggers, he suffers, his big liquid eyes are filled with pain. Unlike Welles's gabby Harry Lime, he says very little. It's all about presence. About symbol. He's a tall shadow haunting the snowy streets. One is encouraged to think of Christ.
Both movies are expressionist . Both films are realist. But in the Third Man a fusion has taken place. There's a unified vision. A real city is transformed by skewed camera angles and crawling shadows into a city of the imagination. In Odd Man Out we lurch from one vision to the other. The plain little terraced house where the crime is plotted belongs in a different universe to the decaying gothic mansion where Lukey the painter squats. There are two cities not one. A city of everyday surfaces and a city of oddity- a daytime city and a night time city.
You could see Odd Man Out as a dry run for The Third Man. They're similar stories; they're both morally ambiguous; they both employ a noir aesthetic. But that's where the similarities end. Odd Man Out is a shambles, a scramble, episodic, picaresque. The Third Man is tightly plotted, beautifully structured. But it's not all gain. Odd Man Out is chaotic but also bigger, weirder, more fun. Because the tone veers round like a weathercock you never quite know what you're going to get next- comedy? hallucination? melodrama? Artistic control is an admirable thing, but it limits the possibities. Robert Newton's ultra-theatrical turn as the barmy painter Lukey wouldn't be admissable in the universe of The Third Man. It would be out of key, a glaring fault. But Odd Man Out can accomodate it- just. And why should we be without it? It's huge, it's glorious, it's a thing of spifflicated beauty.
I'm in awe of The Third Man. I love it . But I'm not sure I don't love Odd Man Out even more; I already want to watch it again. The Third Man is perfect, but Odd Man Out is wonderful.