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Film Review: The Third Man

The Third Man (1949; Directed by Carol Reed)

One of the great film noirs, The Third Man is a rare confluence of titanic talents. Directed by Carol Reed, the English filmmaker who would later win a Best Director for Oliver!, written by master novelist Graham Greene, and thoroughly conquered in its late stages by Orson Welles (a top billed star who doesn’t even show up until the last act), this is a mega-atmospheric mystery of divided loyalties in a divided postwar Vienna where corruption and alienation are the main currency of trade.

Its relatively upright protagonist is Holly Martins (Welles’ Citizen Kane co-star and fellow Mercury Theatre player Joseph Cotten), who finds himself in Vienna after his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles) offers him a job. He arrives to discover that Lime is dead in mysterious, ever-shifting circumstances that involve a car crash and the body being carried from the scene by, at first account, two men and then the titular third. As Martins looks into his friend’s apparent demise, he unravels a complex and cynical tapestry of intrigue, black market trading, and cynical exploitation of dire and chaotic social circumstances.

Reed’s film is a masterclass in black-and-white cinematographic atmosphere, all encroaching shadows and revealing pools of light, scored with the eerie zither music of Anton Karas. Of course, almost no one talks about any portion of the film before Orson Welles makes his iconic and memorable entrance in a darkened doorway, a visual, theatrical bow for an inebriated and surly Cotten (Welles called it a “star part”, where they talk about a character for an hour an then they appear, dramatically). Shrouded in darkness, a light clicks on in a window across the street, and Lime is revealed, a knowing smile on his lips. Just as quickly, the light switches off. From darkness to a revelation in light, and just as quickly back into a cloak of black obscurity. We need no more statement of what Harry Lime is all about.

We get it, though, in the dialogue of the film’s other legendary moment. In the midst of an ominous, threatening ride on Vienna’s Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel, Lime brushes aside any hint of remorse that Martins expects him to feel for the deaths his black market medicine trade has certainly caused. Their elevation on the wheel separates them from the crush of humanity below, which Lime labels blithely as insignificant. He emphasizes his point by comparing the internecine struggles and frequent brutality of Italy during the artistically rich Renaissance with the peace and stability of Switzerland, which could produce nothing more enduring than the comic cuckoo clock. This is sociopathically (as well as historically) disingenuous on Lime’s part, as if trading illegal penicillin is an art comparable to Renaissance painting. But it’s a thoroughly modern justification of ill conduct, a disavowal of the committing of injustices via intellectual fabulism. Welles apparently added the dialogue himself, most probably pinching the Swiss cuckoo clock bon mot from the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

In the mode of many film noirs, the transgressive, anti-social picture of dissolution and nihilism is course-corrected somewhat by The Third Man‘s conclusion, as Lime is tracked down and brought to lethal justice by Martins and the police in the Expressionistic sewers beneath Vienna. Deeply influenced by German Expressionism in its visual construction and surfaces, film noir returns near to its source in The Third Man and reaches one of its aesthetic peaks. There were top-notch exercises in the genre to follow (Welles himself made one of them, A Touch of Evil, to say nothing of the influence of Kane), but noir was perhaps never more noir than in The Third Man.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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