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The Third Man


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The Third Man
Carol Reed I 1949 I UK

The Third Man is a film that has grown on me. Every time I see it there is something new about it, and that makes me love it even more. It is a picture that must be seen repeatedly in order to truly appreciate its qualities and sheer brilliance. Because, there's no denying, director Carol Reed reached the peak of his form with this classic noir, an elegy for American innocence and European elegance. And why? Well, I guess the reason is quite simple; The Third Man is sheer brilliance. One could safely say that it is a good film, but, of course, to do so would be absolute madness. Not only would that be an understatement, (although it does lean a bit towards blasphemy), whoever said so should get their brain checked. Honestly, I can't praise this film enough. Perhaps saying this is a cliché, but it has genius written all over it, it's so palpable you could even feel it if you touched the TV screen with your fingertips. To not fully comprehend the mastermind and virtuosity of it all would be a very dreadful thing to do. The Third Man is without a doubt one of the finest motion pictures of all time.

Joseph Cotten, in fine form, stars as unemployed pulp-novelist Holly Martins. When he arrives in post-WWII Vienna on the promise of a job from his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he finds that Lime has recently died in a dubious car accident. Against the advice of British sector authority Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who accuses Lime of criminal behaviour, the indignant Martins decides to stay to investigate his friend's death. He searches this city of rubble-strewn streets and bombed-out buildings, earnestly questioning Lime's associates, a cynical, war-weary collection of black-market hustlers. At length, he realizes that the stories he's hearing are so full of contradiction, he's getting nowhere. Yet, he's entranced by Lime's beautiful ex-girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who, unlike the others, seems to have loved Harry. Calloway finally provides evidence of Harry's treachery, and Martins, despondent, is about to return home when everything changes in a shadowed moment.

The first thing you realise when watching this film is that the director really knows what he's doing. Carol Reed's direction is pitch-perfect and very assured. It is evident that he understands the material he's dealing with, and, besides treating it well, that he uses everything at his disposal to get the best out of it. Working from the fantastically written script by Graham Greene, Reed builds up the tension right from the beginning, thus keeping the viewer's interest at a very high level. And, surprisingly, the director manages to finely maintain the suspense from the moment Martins arrives until the incredible denouement. On the whole, Reed  leads the film onto the right path which profoundly convinces us with its inspiring cinematic purity. 

As for the acting, what can I say? Joseph Cotten is brilliant in the main role; he's like a foundation upon which the rest of the performances are built, as it is so pivotal. Not only does he show exceeding signs of talent and huge charisma, but he also demonstrates his versatility and generosity as a performer. Then there's Allida Vali, who helped by Cotten, is excellent in her role, too. But the person who truly eats you heart out is the one and only Orson Welles. Though his screen time is considerably brief, there's just no getting around it; from his stunningly executed revelation scene you can't help but admire that sheer flair of his with which he acts, oh so ever wonderfully. When he was offered the role of Harry Lime he instantly accepted it, not only to be part of Reed's movie but also because he needed money for his screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. And thank God he did that. Even though Welles' character is afforded little time, his enigmatic presence is felt in every scene as though he were actually there. So right from the moment we first see him he doesn't just appear, he bursts onto the screen, quite literally, and we are immediately captivated. From then on, with his usual dominating countenance, he reigns over the rest of the actors and over the whole movie, really. Welles embodies the role of Harry Lime in such a flawless way that the mystique which had been cleverly and acutely developed around the character does not evaporate. It actually stays with you, and you still find yourself asking questions about him and wondering. And the scenes featuring him interacting with Cotten are some of the most memorable, especially the one that takes place on the Ferris wheel (also, let's not forget that this film was a re-union for both of them, as they starred together in Welles own Citizen Kane).

One of the other most glorious elements which make up The Third Man is the cinematography by Robert Krasker (for which he won an Academy Award, and deservedly so). Filmed in stark black and white, it masterfully makes use of shadows, contrasting the light with the dark in a supreme way and portraying a post-war Vienna at night as a bleakly frightening world where the most unexpected may occur. Krasker transforms Vienna into a coruscating, expressionist nightmare with great fluidity and skill, further developing the stylish visual mood of the film.  The cinematography is very angular as well, and often you discover that it tilts the camera slightly to a side, both expressing and reflecting the characters' anxieties. It's extraordinary, arguably the greatest black and white cinematography to have ever been put on celluloid. And one has to admit that without Kanras, the final confrontation in the sewers wouldn't have worked, since his work plays a crucial part in the unforgettable sequence.

Overall, The Third Man works on so many different dimensions that one needn't wonder why it is considered to be such a classic. It's a magnificent thriller filled with love, mystery, poetry and subtle satire that succeeds as a gorgeous example of what film noir ought to be like.  Not only that, it also reminds us of the magic of filmmaking and the joy of seeing really worthwhile movies with a bag of popcorn in our hands. Utterly absorbing and intensely gratifying, The Third Man is a film worth seeing a hundred times. From the beginning, it gets you hooked and doesn't let go until the end. It's a masterpiece featuring remarkable performances, great writing and directing, not excluding the spellbinding classic zither score by Anton Kanras. The complete effect it has on you is as impressive as it is bewildering; it leaves you both fascinated and baffled but above all, it leaves you wondering why they don't make movies like these any more.


Reviewed by The Third M?n, 2003