The Third Man (1949)

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous scribblings, I’m a huge fan of the trappings and style of the ‘film noir’ genre. Earlier this week, while reading an unrelated article, I came across mention of this apparently ‘classic’ entry into the genre and decided to give it a whirl, as I was in the mood for hard-boiled characters, snappy dialogue, moody lighting, heavy shadows and lethal intrigue. Did I get it? Let’s take a look.
‘The Third Man’ takes place in post-WW2 Vienna, now a scarred city occupied by the military police forces of the US, Britain, France and Russia. Into this fragile backdrop arrives out-of-work pulp Western novelist ‘Holly Martins’ (Joseph Cotten), who’s in town to meet an old friend ‘Harry Lime’. ‘Harry’ has apparently offered ‘Martins’ a job and the man intends to take his chum up on his seemingly generous offer. However, upon turning up at ‘Harry’s apartment, he discovers that the man was allegedly killed only days before in a traffic accident, having been struck down by a truck just outside the building. All seems lost to ‘Martins’, and he opts to attend the funeral of his friend. While there, he spots several suspicious characters, while also coming to the attention of British ‘Major Calloway’ (Trevor Howard) and his bullish-but-mannered ‘right hand man’ Sergeant Paine’ (Bernard Lee), who soon make contact. It’s through this contact that ‘Martins’ finds out that ‘Harry’ was under suspicion for the theft of military doses of Penicillin, for the thriving black market. The use of the diluted medication resulted in dozens of children being rendered brain dead as a result of Meningitis, and the British military wants to find the culprit…who they believed was ‘Harry’. Through his navigation of the growing web of intrigue, ‘Martins’ also meets ‘Anna’ (Alida Valli), ‘Harry’s former lover, who may know more than she’s letting on. All these points converge on a spectacularly well-shot sequence in the vast sewers below the city, where the ‘underground’ story literally culminates underground.
For what it is, this British ‘film noir’ is good…but I’m not entirely sure it qualifies for either Great or Classic status. The ‘classic’ part I can understand, from a technical perspective, as there’s a lot of really admirable camera and lighting work on display, but there are aspects to the script and the music (which’ll get it’s own mention shortly) that just didn’t come together.
As a ‘film noir’, this movie does have the hallmarks of the genre. The down-on-his-luck hero, the femme fatale, the intrigue, the thugs, the twisty plot and the sudden bursts of violence all show up, which certainly help legitimize it’s addition the the annals of the genre. That being said, they made some odd choices that admittedly pulled me out of the serpentine narrative.
As I mentioned before, The Music. The flick opens with an extreme close-up of ‘dancing’ guitar strings, which the credits appear over. As they roll, we’re treated to a weird Latin-Hawaiian hybrid of a music score, which sounded just a little too goofy and light-hearted for the expected subject matter. Before the movie even got going, my first impression was being pushed in a direction contrary to what I was expecting…and in this case, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I wondered if that ‘flavour’ of music would be restrained as the flick played out…but to its detriment, it wasn’t. The twangy and whimsical sound reared its head a lot, and it actually began to annoy me, as it simply didn’t fit the tone or the subject matter, in my opinion.
There was also the curious and, at times, pointless over-use of the ‘Dutch’ angle. To anyone out there who doesn’t know, ‘Dutch’ angles are a stylistic film composition that tilts the camera and holds off-kilter, often used in scenes that take on a tense, confused or mysterious air. Used well, they can be VERY effective (the late Tony Scott knew when to use them well). It’s just too bad that director Carol Reed got a little too ‘trigger happy’ with them. They turn up EVERYWHERE in this flick, sometimes for no apparent reason. That was how I actually started noticing their frequency. There was a simple scene of two people meeting in a hotel lobby (if I recall correctly), in the 1st Act, and for some reason, a hefty chunk of the shots were of the ‘Dutch’angle variety, with seemingly no narrative reason for it. This tipped me off and I kept my peepers peeping for more. And more I got. Don’t get me wrong, MANY of them WERE used effectively, but a lot of them could’ve been left by the way-side.
Having made that little critique of the visuals, I now have to counter myself and give credit where credit is due. While some angles were undeniably over-played, the lighting and use of shadows were absolutely top-notch. It was painting-with-light and it was pulled off magnificently. Characters would emerge from the slashes of dark and melt back into it just as easily. Given the time-period, it seemed that some of the style used COULD be seen as ahead of its time, and to that I say “Good for them!”. Now I’m intrigued to seek out more ‘noir’ flicks from the period, just to make sure I’m not getting ahead of my self in my ‘ahead of its time’ statement.
The acting is quite good and there was a certain naturalism to the character interactions. It didn’t have the stilted and stage-like delivery that many films of the 30’s-40’s suffer from, and that went a long way in helping me push past the inappropriately goofy-sounding music score and allowing me to give something of a shit for the characters.There was also a surprising amount of subtle humor scattered through the first 2/3rds, capably aided by the somewhat realistic line readings of the cast. I’ll admit that I haven’t been exposed to anywhere near as much material featuring Orson Welles as a Movie Nerd like me probably should be, but I’ll readily admit that when he turned up here as ‘Harry Lime’, *SPOILER*, the man did have a commanding presence, even with limited screen time. Now I need to hunt down more ‘Orson Welles’ material too, damn it!
Another aspect that I MUST mention was the admirable use of foreign languages. Given where and when this story is set, several different languages are spoken throughout the film and it really gives the story or, more specifically, the setting, a feeling of authenticity. I appreciated that the foreign characters weren’t made to jabber on in heavily accented, caricature-like English, as many films from the period were want to do. Here, the main character ‘Holly’ is an American with very little foreign experience and no second language. So, when he’s confronted by or trying to communicate with characters who don’t speak his ‘jibber jabber’, we share his confusion and frustration. Characters often translate for him / us, but only when it’s relevant…the rest of the time we have to just guess at what’s being said.
All in all, I can understand why people hold this movie in such high as it is well-shot (over-kill on the ‘Dutch’ angles aside), with a lot of creative choices on display that help the tone of the flick and pull us into ‘Holly’s strange journey. That being said, the film equally pushes us away with it’s tonally inappropriate use of music. The ‘feel’ was just all wrong and I found it distracting to the point of annoyance. I’m sure the torches and pitchforks will come out for this, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a remake of this one, still set in the same time period, but with a more consistent ‘flavour’, and a little more ‘teeth’. As for this Original, I can recommend it to fans of classic B/W cinema, especially if the setting and subject matter are to your liking and if you have a curiosity for all things Orson Welles. ‘The Third Man’ is a good movie…just not a great one.


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