The Third Man (1949): Out of the Rubble

the third man 1Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. 

Great films ring anew each time you see them. Or in this case, they twang with the oddly disconcerting strains of zither strings. The Third Man is such a film that continually asserts itself as one of the golden classics of the 1940s. But we must set the scene.

There’s an image of a great city–a formerly great city–blown up, diced up, and quartered. The first syllable of dialogue glibly carrying a twinge of irony lays the groundwork for the entire plot really. This is Post-war Vienna. It’s where the blown out buildings strewn with rubble can exist with the elegant remnants of royal dynasties. A land of black marketeering and shifty-eyed collaboration between wartime allies. It’s deception and ambiguity to the nth degree not only evident in the people but the very social structure they find themselves in. Everyone’s got an angle, a secret to hide, and a reason to hide it. There’s a consistently fine line between right and wrong and the storyline is ripe with incongruities and dissonance that, if nothing else, are disconcerting.

It struck me that this is the original Chinatown except it doesn’t simply act as a mere metaphor. We actually get enveloped in the atmospheric Vienesse world that feels invariably gaunt and hollow. It’s a world that’s flipped upside down and with the hapless American western pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as our guide, we become just as mixed up as he does.

He’s come to the town for the prospects of a job offered by an old school chum Harry Lime. But Harry’s not there to meet him. In fact, Harry’s not anywhere. He’s dead. But everything is clouded with that same ambiguity. The military police led by Inspector Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his right hand man (Bernard Lee) are still investigating Lime’s prior dealings on the black market in tainted penicillin. Meanwhile, Martins obviously goes blundering around trying to learn anything he can because these men are obviously incompetent. He scouts around for eyewitnesses and several of Lime’s acquaintances. Most of all he’s taken with Harry’s gal Anna (Valli) who is also torn apart by the death of her Harry. They bond over that although Holly soon becomes infatuated with her as she remains in love with a man who is gone forever.

This is the disorienting world that we are thrown into by Graham Green and director Carol Reed. Where heaven is down and hell is up. Ferris Wheels ever turning, rotating through their cycles. Dutch angles giving every figure a contorted view. We never see anyone for their face value and we can never assume anything. Because there’s always something lurking in the shadows.

the third man 2Joseph Cotten is surprisingly compelling as the poor, unfortunate stiff and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him in his ignorance because we can relate with him. Alida Valli is striking as the aloof beauty who nevertheless has an unswerving affection for her former love that remains the only joyous thing in her current existence. Then, of course, there’s Orson Welles as the charismatic myth of a man–arguably the most intriguing supporting character there ever was even if it’s mostly thanks to the legend created by those who knew him.

Meanwhile, Carol Reed’s film is stylish and simultaneously dingy around the edges another gritty entry in the annals of film noir with some of the most beautifully pronounced shadows in the history of film. The final setpiece through the dank cavernous underworld of the Viennese sewers is a fitting place for the Third Man’s climatic moments to play out. It epitomizes all that has been going on above ground so far.

Then in a strikingly Deja Vu moment, the story ends much as it began in the exact same place with the exact same people but now there is so much more tension underlying each character. Feelings now buried in the dirt.

And in his final shot, Reed is fearless. He plays a game with the audience, giving them their final shot but instead of bringing it to a rapid conclusion he lets the gravity of the situation sink in before it’s gone in a fit of wistful melancholy. It ends as all films noir should with one man dead, another man smoking a cigarette, and the girl walking off with neither of them. It’s about as bleak as you can get but then again we’ve already spent the entire film getting accustomed to this lifestyle. This is only a day in the life of a city like Vienna. This is what life is in a post-war zone.

5/5 Stars

Note: I will say that I rewatched the film on Netflix and I would vehemently dissuade others from doing the same (at least if they’ve never seen The Third Man before). Because one major change they made that you would hardly even think about is adding subtitles in some crucial moments. When I saw the film multiple times before the lack of subtitles only added to my general sense of confusion in the face of ambiguities, much like Holly Martins faces himself. Subtitles take some of that away from us as an audience. In this case, the subtitles are tantamount to colorizing black & white movies or resorting to pan and scan. They can easily ruin the experience.

Review: The Third Man (1949)

5873f-thirdmanusposterI am continually drawn to The Third Man for a number of reasons, which I would love to highlight right now. To begin with, the opening credits come up and yet behind them is the rather odd image of a row of strings. As an audience, this is our first introduction to the zither, the twangy instrument that will create the strangely haunting score over the course of the film.

Then, we are fed a casual bit of narration that quickly throws us into the story of western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), as he heads to Vienna to meet his old school chum Harry Lime (to be revealed later!). It seems safe to say that World War II was not good to the city, which is a mixture of ruins, cobblestone streets and ornate architecture that lend itself to an uneasy feeling. In other words, what happens in Vienna, stays in Vienna. Everything is zoned off nicely, and the authorities try and stay out of each other’s way.

Martins learns soon enough that Lime is dead and yet it doesn’t add up. His best friend was hit by a car driven by a colleague, carried off the road by two friends, and diagnosed by his personal doctor who all happened to be present. Martins is urged by a Major Calloway to not get involved. Heading home would be a much better solution.

But of course, Martins does not heed this advice. He meets Harry Lime’s girl, the beautiful but somber Anna (Valli), who has her own troubles with the authorities. Further investigation points to a mysterious third man who a local porter saw from his window. The old man winds up dead and soon Martins himself is threatened. Calloway encourages him to leave again before reluctantly disclosing that Lime was dealing diluted penicillin on the black market. That batch ultimately killed and harmed many a patient.

It’s a whole different ballgame now. But wait, after dropping in on Anna, Martins sees a shadowy figure out her window and in a dramatic entrance Lime shows his face. A magnificent magic trick and fully alive. The next day on a Ferris wheel Lime’s true character comes out. All I will say is that he would have been at home in the Borgia family.

Now Holly is conflicted about helping the police snag his old friend or heading home, wiping his hands of the whole ordeal. He finally reluctantly swings a deal because of his love for Anna. Plans are set and soon a trap is sprung for Lime. He is tipped off by a still faithful Anna, but the police force him to make his getaway into the sewers. That is where it all goes down for good. The next day Holly Martins waits at the side of the road for Anna. She slowly makes her way in his direction and without any acknowledgment, she keeps on walking on. She is now out of the picture and all he can do is light yet another cigarette. That is the cold and painful ending to The Third Man, a perfectly suited story for Post-War Vienna and a great Film-Noir.

We become constantly aware of this film’s almost painful camera angles, at times, which slightly distort scenes and close in on faces. It is an unnerving feeling for the viewer which is only compounded by the bleak and shadowy cinematography, along with the haunting music. It all adds up to a perfectly chilling composition. The story feels starkly real too thanks to the on-location shooting and the mixing in of the German with the English. As a non-German speaker, this extra language only furthered my confusion and, at times, my paranoia. Along with Martins, I often could not understand what was going on, causing me to be more and more befuddled.

All in all, although Orson Welles stole the show, both Joseph Cotten and Valli were superb. The two of them had the most screen time and it certainly was not wasted. Whether they were walking or talking they always made for an interesting contrast. Their accents, their demeanor, even their opinions of Lime were often in juxtaposition. I was not a fan of Trevor Howard, but he was not meant to be a likable character. Bernard Lee, on the other hand, had to be my favorite supporting role.

The Third Man is already on my watch list again and for good reason! Well done Carol Reed, Grahame Green, and Anton Karas!

5/5 Stars

The Third Man (1949) – Film-Noir

In this film starring Joseph Cotten, Valli, and Orson Welles, an American western writer (Cotten) travels to post-war Vienna to meet a friend. Upon arriving he learns that his buddy has been killed in an accident. Not quite satisfied, he does some of his own investigating and along the way meets his friend’s beautiful lover (Valli). Together they try to cope and make sense of the loose ends. However, neither of them expected the shocking evidence which was to come. Who is the Third Man and where is he? Made in the film-noir fashion, The Third Man utilizes lighting and contrasting black and white cinematography effectively. The actual on location shooting in post-war Vienna helps add to the gritty realism. Although simple, the score comprised solely of zither music is no less powerful.

This movie will have you engrossed in the mysterious occurrences since The Third Man simply has some good twists. Whether Holly Martins is whisked away in a car, Harry Lime makes a dramatic entrance or Lime runs away into the sewer system, many of the moments are full of intrigue. I also think this is one of Orson Welles finest performances, because although his screen time is minimal, he has such a tremendous impact on the film. He portrays a very mysterious character in Harry Lime who certainly has his complexities. The ironic and abrupt ending seems to close the film just as it began. However, so much happens in the course of events. The film is even realistic in the language and dialogue, showing the differences between people. Because when it all comes down to it this film may revolve around one man, but it is really about the varying relationships between people.

5/5 Stars