Most unusually, the screenplay (by Graham Greene), was a cinematic original, later turned into a crime "entertainment" novella for the literary market. The film was, in addition, a brilliant vehicle for Orson Welles, whose career had been in eclipse since the release of Citizen Kane , having to endure a de facto blacklisting initiated by the Hearst Corporation. It is in many ways, Welles's best role outside of Kane, and the character he portrays is so close to the skin it almost feels like real life. Joseph Cotton, who'd shared billing with Welles in Kane, also stars, as does the unforgettable, drop-dead seductive beauty Alida Valli, and Trevor Howard.
The film is many things: A murder mystery, a triangle love-story, a comedy, a chase, and not least, an expressionistic portrait of the city of Vienna, where the filming was done on location. All these elements co-exist in a shifting, improbable series of black and white narrative set-pieces. The cinematography is masterful, and the theme music played on the zither, a "plucky" stringed instrument, is profoundly evocative of place and time.
Briefly, it's the story of an American "Westerns" writer, Holly Martens, who is called to Vienna by his old friend Harry Lime. Just as Martins arrives, he learns that Harry has died. Poking around post-War Vienna--jointly run in four sectors by Britain, America, France and the Soviet Union--Holly insinuates himself into Harry's shady corrupt world of black market drugs and small-time crooks. He falls (predictably) for Harry's girlfriend Anna Schmidt (played flawlessly by the hypnotic Valli) and eventually tracks Harry down. Their meetings are furtive and picturesque: The first time, riding a huge ferris wheel in the Prater park, then later, down dark, wet cobbled streets in the dead of night. Eventually, Martins is forced to acknowledge his old friend's evil nature, finally agreeing to help set a trap for him, which leads to a suspenseful pursuit through Vienna's complex system of underground sewers. Along the way, Martins ends up delivering a "talk" to a high-minded little literary society about "Mr. James Joyce"--an absurdist subplot typical of Greene.
The whole movie is a surrealistic romp. Everyone, except perhaps Martins--who's so disingenuous and naive that he seems to have stepped out of a 1940's cigarette ad--is into deception. Even Anna sort of pretends to be falling in love with him, though she's irretrievably stuck on Harry, the ultimate ambiguous charmer, and is merely playing along to be reunited with her vampire lover.
One favorite scene of mine's set along a dark abandoned street, Martins and a British officer are lurking in the shadows of a building, when an ancient (goat-footed???) balloon-man, with enough balloons he appears capable of levitating, notices them, and not realizing the suspense afoot, insists that they buy a balloon: "Mein herr, balloon...balloon...balloon"--it's like a scene straight out of an Antonioni flick, crazy and hilarious at once,. teetering (as does the film) precariously between farce and tragedy.
Everyone, it seems, in this decadent, layered, metaphorically catacombed (worm-eaten) ancient city has become cynical and selfish. In the end, after Lime has been killed, Martins, hoping against hope that Anna will accept his advances, meets her at the graveyard. Standing at the edge of the long allee, lined in perfect perspective with barren trees, he waits as she walks, in measured, deliberate strides towards him, autumn leaves drifting softly down, and watches with a kind of defeatist's stoicism, as she walks right by him and out of his life. Would having had Anna have been the triumph he imagines? All these characters know is hunger: For love, sustenance, excitement, comradeship, hope. The war years are like a deep chasm of devastation, out of which Europe claws its way upward towards redemption, and the promise of happiness.