Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Third Man

The first time I sat down to watch The Third Man, I was struck by how incongruous the soundtrack was.  It's a fine soundtrack and I like the main theme, but it just didn't feel like it matched the film at all.  When I think of film noir, the zither is not an instrument that comes immediately to mind.

Over the years, as I've watched and re-watched The Third Man, I've grown to enjoy the contrast of tone the zither provides in this film.  Regardless of how much you like the soundtrack, though, you have to admit that scoring this movie with a zither was a distinctive choice.

Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten), a none-too-successful writer of American Western dime store novels, has just arrived in post-World War II Vienna to meet up with his childhood friend, Harry Lime.  Harry has offered Holly a job, which is good because he has just about zero dollars.  Unfortunately, Harry died just the other day; he was killed by a car when crossing the street.  After the funeral, Holly is approached by someone claiming to be a friend of Harry's, who offers to pay for Holly's flight home.  Similarly, the local British MPs seem keen to ship Holly back home, too.  Since he has no money and no prospects for making any, Holly is ready to leave --- he just wants to commiserate with Harry's grieving girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), first and get a clear picture of his pal's later life.
Commiserate, be a creeper --- to-may-toe, to-mah-toe
When he's at Anna's apartment, which is where Harry was leaving when he died, Holly starts to smell a rat.  Harry's pal who offered Holly a way home had said that he and another man had carried a dying Harry out of the street and that Harry's last wish had been to make sure Holly and Anna were taken care of.  But the superintendent of Anna's building caught the aftermath of the accident from his window and claimed that Harry had obviously died instantly and that there had been a third man helping remove the body from the street.  Why would anyone go out of their way to lie about this?  Unless, of course, Harry's death was not an accident at all...!  With that thought, Holly takes it upon himself to uncover the conspiracy surrounding Harry's death and find that third man.
"You're probably not the third man, but I'd like to do some more inspecting"

For the most part, I don't think the acting in The Third Man is anything terribly special.  Nobody is bad, but there is only one truly great character in this film.  Unfortunately, that character is not Holly; thus, Joseph Cotten's acting here takes a back seat to the thankless task of propelling the plot.  Cotten turns out a solid performance --- aside from his unfortunately cartoonish drunk scene --- but his innocent character was never intended to be the focus of this film.
Tip to appear drunk: Don't maintain the flawless quaff
I liked Alida Valli quite a bit more; her best moments are when she is at her coldest, but I also appreciated how well she played a character that does not follow traditional movie logic.  While those two have the most screen time, the star of the film is, without a doubt, Orson Welles.  He is a blast to watch, whether it be when he is being charming and enigmatic or just a soulless douchebag.
Or a cross between the two
It's funny; when I think of Orson Welles, I think of him primarily as a director.  That isn't an insult to his acting ability, but I think his history as a maverick filmmaker generally overshadows his acting work.  The Third Man is a great example of just how good Welles can be as an actor, especially a key supporting character.  Welles famously referred to his part in this film as an almost absentee part, but I think that is selling him short; yes, the buildup to his appearance definitely eases his job, but Welles gave perhaps the quintessential amoral performance (pre-1950, at the very least) here.  The rest of the cast is completely decent, but not spectacular.  Trevor Howard plays an uptight English military man quite well and I will admit that it took me a few viewings to recognize Bernard Lee (of James Bond fame) as an underling.  I also enjoyed the myriad European character actors that popped up in this movie --- most of whom were comically evil-looking --- but none of them really stood out for me more than any other.

What does stand out, though, is the direction of Carol Reed.  Reed, along with his cinematographer Robert Krasker, made one of my favorite movies to  Sure, there are probably too many angled shots, but they are all framed gorgeously; I (obviously) haven't been to post-WWII Vienna, but they captured an interesting blend of majesty and rubble.
The Third Man is, quite simply, one of the most visually alluring films I have ever seen.  I love when a director adds little bits of flair to imply intent, and this movie is absolutely brimming with examples.  Thanks to the importance of those shots, there are many moments that have become iconic, and deservedly so.
Gorgeous.  Simply gorgeous.  Even if he is peeing.
Some have proposed that The Third Man was at least partially directed by Orson Welles, with Carol Reed simply maintaining the official credit; while I think it is obvious that Reed was heavily influenced by Welles, what I see in this film --- the fantastic cinematography, the boring leading man, and the directorial intent --- are natural progressions of what I've seen in his earlier work.  And, of course, his choice for the soundtrack was brilliantly subversive.  Did Welles have a hand in the direction of this movie?  I doubt it.  Still, there are worse things than being suspected of being too Wellesian, right?

The Third Man is, for me at least, one of the best film noirs ever made.  Exactly what separates it from, say, The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity?  I think that boils down to just two scenes.  The first is the Ferris wheel scene.  Aside from being a great image, this scene also has a fantastic monologue from Orson Welles, one which has been referenced a number of times since, even in two separate episodes of Law & Order
Moral: all ants need to die, and die horribly
The other iconic sequence is the chase scene in the sewers of Vienna.  It is a combination of the lack of dialogue, the fantastic cinematography, and some high-quality suspense that makes this sequence work, but oh, does it work!
This film also bucked tradition by being filmed on location --- which was still decades away from being a standard practice --- and sticking with an ending that isn't exactly all wine and roses.  For all these reasons and more, I highly recommend this movie.  The only thing keeping it from being a perfect "10" in my book is the fact that the main characters are not terribly interesting.  Even with that as an obstacle, this is one of the true cinema greats.

And check out this cool The Third Man poster made by some random dude on the interweb!  It's good stuff.
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  1. I have only seen this movie once, probably about five years ago. It did not knock me over the head, but I guess I will have to give it another go. You mentioned that you have seen it multiple times, did you come to enjoy it more?

    Welles is able to really fill up a screen with his presence. I have always been a big fan. I wonder how his acting was respected by contemporaries. Maybe they loved it, but over the years it is only the directing he is remembered for. I would really like to get your take on The Lady From Shanghai, if you have an opportunity to watch it. I think it is fascinating.

    1. Lady From Shanghai is on my list, but reminding me about it makes it a hell of a lot more likely that I will get to it in a timely fashion.

      I enjoyed this movie more with multiple viewings, most definitely. The first time around, I was impressed by the cinematography. The second time around, I really appreciated Welles. Since then, I've started enjoying the odd little nuggets here and there, like how hilarious it is that the bad guys are so OBVIOUSLY evil or how odd the zither music feels. I'm definitely a bigger fan of the deliberateness of the direction (is there a better build-up and reveal of a character than in this movie?) than the main character.

      I may be overrating this movie just a little bit, but it's definitely worth another viewing.