Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Third Man (1949) *****

Orson Welles once said that black-and-white film was the actor’s friend, and that there were no great performances in color. There have certainly been plenty of great performances in color since then, but it is easy, watching a gorgeous film like “The Third Man,” to see why Welles was so enamored of black-and-white. The crisp play of light and dark on the faces of the actors and on the streets and sewers of post-WWII Vienna makes this film just stunning.
Visual qualities aside, “The Third Man” is quintessential noir. Noir films typically portray a mostly-good man’s descent into a situation where he is surrounded by evil. The outlook is pointedly bleak, and the protagonists of noir films do not generally perform heroic acts to overcome evil. At best, they manage to avoid becoming evil themselves. The tension in a noir is primarily over whether or not the protagonist will lose his soul.
The protagonist in this movie is Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp writer who travels to Vienna to take a job with his friend, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, he arrives only to find that his friend is dead, accidentally run over by a truck. This is Vienna after WWII, occupied by Allied forces, with just the beginnings of Cold War tension starting to show. The bombed-out city is filled with soldiers, desperate citizens, and international types with shady motives, reminiscent of some of the characters in “Casablanca.” As Martins brushes up against these characters, he learns two things: 1) His friend Harry Lime was involved in the black market. 2) There is something fishy about Harry’s death. One witness says that two men carried Harry’s dying body out of the street, while another claims to have seen three men carrying the body. The mystery of that third man gives the film its title, and gives Holly Martins a reason to stay in Vienna. As he descends further into the heart of darkness, Martins falls for his late friend’s lover, the beautiful Anna (Alida Valli), and discovers that Harry’s crimes are much worse than he had imagined. Eventually Martin’s sense of right and wrong collides with his sense of loyalty to his friend.
“The Third Man” is, quite frankly, a perfect movie, as memorable for its small touches as for its big scenes. The famous chase scene in the sewers of Vienna is a triumph of cinematography, although interestingly enough, Orson Welles refused to shoot his parts in the sewer, so his shots had to be done on a set. Welles’s most memorable line, meant to justify his misdeeds, is a classic, “…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.” One small touch that is very funny and revealing about the character of Holly Martins is that he constantly gets other people’s names wrong, but then is very indignant when someone does the same to him. Joseph Cotten delivers the complaint without irony, revealing the narcissism which is Martins’s biggest weakness.
I haven’t seen any other films by “Third Man” director Carol Reed, but I think it is safe to assume that this is among his best works. “The Third Man” is certainly one of Orson Welles’s greatest appearances, and the beautiful photography does justice to his pre-bloat years. For lovers of film, this is absolutely necessary viewing. I suggest moving it to the top of your Netflix queue. 5 stars.

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