Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Third Man (1949)

Den Tredje Man
”The Third Man” is one of the most famous movies on the List so far, up there in category with ”Gone With the Wind”, “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz”. It may in fact be the single most famous Film Noir ever made (although missing a number of the usual noir tropes) so it may be only fitting that I got my greasy hands on one of the most outstanding DVD’s I have seen so far with this one. The quality is just staggering. The picture is knife sharp, the sound clear and crisp and the extra material so stupendous they included an extra disk for it. I feel truly spoiled.

Since we are now talking one of the truly famous film I feel a bit stupid for recounting the storyline. I will try to avoid that and instead focus on all the things that is great about this movie, because, yes, I am duly impressed. Shockingly this is another classic I never saw before, I still shake my head at my own ignorance, but the theme music is so famous that even my wife, who flatly refuses to watch these old movies with me, showed up asking me what this is. I have always known this music, it is that famous. So why did I never see the movie? I cannot answer that.

“The Third Man” is one of film history’s first true international film. Officially it is a British film directed by Carol Reed, but with American David O. Selznick as co-producer since at least two (possibly three) of the leading actors were under contract with him and Selznick was not a guy who held back and gave the director free reins… The movie takes place in Vienna and was filmed on location using Austrian actors and countless local extras, crew and studio and just to add to the mix, leading lady Alida Valli was Italian. Calling this a British film I think is a bit of a stretch. You might think that this mix would add a lot of confusion and I cannot rule out that there might have been some during production, but in the movie it all comes together beautifully. That is probably largely due to the location.

Vienna in 1948, when the movie was filmed, was a divided city between the four powers of America, Soviet, France and Britain, much like Berlin actually. I had no idea, so I learned something new as well. As any city in central Europe in the postwar period the city was a rather chaotic place. You have the grandeur and elegance of bygone eras combined with ruins and rubble and a lack of practically any commodities. It was a city still groggy from the war where lives were lived on a day to day basis with an informal barter economy. If you could eat art and rubble Vienna in 48 would be a rich place, but you cannot. Instead this is the perfect setting for a film noir. One of the best things Reed and Graham Greene did was to go to Vienna, develop the story there and film it on location. The city is a character all on its own and they would never have gotten remotely as good a result in a studio. In that sense I am sure they saw a few of the Italian neorealist movies or maybe Fritz Lang’s “M”.

So we have this city speaking German with four powers controlling it who can hardly speak with each other (this is contemporary with the Berlin crisis) and into this mix an American adventurer Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and his friend trying to find him, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton). While Lime thrives in this informal and anarchistic city, exploiting the opportunities in the seedy underbelly (literally) of Vienna, Martins is a fish out of water. He writes cheap western fiction and is clearly totally unprepared for the reality in Vienna. His naivety makes him vulnerable and clumsy, but also charming and so there is no doubt which of the two we are rooting for. In Vienna everybody speaks German and only a few a spattering of English. Reed had the courage to let them speak German and even avoid subtitles. That would give the viewer an equally disorienting feeling as Martins is having and it works very well indeed. I know enough German to follow the German dialogue and it is real dialogue, not garbage sentences, but they are meant to be difficult to understand for the viewer. Again a sense of realism that I can only admire.

Who is friend and who is foe in this strange land Martins finds himself in? The girlfriend (Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt) Lime left behind? Martins befriends her, even falls in love with her, but is she good or bad? The porter of the building where Lime lived (Paul Hörbiger, a famous Austrian actor), what does he really know and why is he suddenly killed, and most intriguing, what is the story with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard)?

Calloway is of the British military police in Vienna and starts out being rather antagonistic towards Martins. He intimidates that Lime was a criminal and bluntly tells Martins to go home where he belongs. That clearly rubs Martins the wrong way and so he sets out to prove that Lime, his friend, was an innocent victim who got murdered. Trevor Howard, who we previously saw in the excellent “Brief Encounter”, is completely the arrogant, but competent British officer. He has the cool, stiff British upper lip (under his pencil moustache) and it is easy to dislike him for a cynical bastard, but as the movie progresses things starts moving and one of them is Calloway, who shows some sides of himself that you might not have expected. He may in fact be the only person in the entire town who truly cares and he ends up being perhaps the most likeable character of them all.

Orson Welles gets a lot of credit for this film. Admittedly this is his best acting performance since “Citizen Kane”, the role fits his greasy pig face perfectly (though Peter Lorre would also have worked well here), but he actually only shows up more than an hour into the movie. Okay, that is quite an entrance and he does make the most of it including his very cynical speech about the value (or lack of) of human lives, but up to that point the movie belongs to Joseph Cotten. He is absolutely marvelous. He exudes the combination of American confidence and confusion to perfection. You see how he as the movie progresses becomes increasingly deflated admitting to himself how little he really knows and his character is forced to make some difficult choices between right and wrong in a world where those two concepts are not clearly defined.

So, is this film noir? Certainly there is plenty of noir elements here. The setting and the filming not least, but also the confusion and the dark underbelly of life. There are these odd unexplained characters popping up and characters who are not who they seem to be, but there are also elements which are not really noir. Anna Schmidt is hardly a femme fatale and Martins hardly have a dark past threatening to ruin him. In fact the plot itself is more of a mystery story and there are unexpected comedic elements like the book club that invites Martins expecting him to be a highbrow literate but find themselves sadly disappointed. Apparently Greene’s nod to some similar event he was himself exposed to.

I liked this movie a lot. In fact I find very little to criticize. Maybe the ending was a bit anticlimactic? We do get a high adrenaline manhunt through the sewers, but it almost seems too easy after the massive buildup. Yet I am not unhappy at all. In fact I am wondering if I should just pop it in the player and watch it again for the fun of it. Why not?     


  1. I like this movie a lot, too. And Welles does have one of the all time great first appearances for a character. It was because of the build up. I can't remember if it was in the extras for this DVD or on something else, but I saw Welles talking about while doing stage plays he had learned which characters were the best to play because of how the audience would perceive them. He told a story about how the entire first act of a play was everyone talking about a character who did not appear until right at the end of the first act. During the intermission the entire audience would be talking about what a great performance the actor playing that character was giving - even though he had only been on stage very briefly. The parallel with the Harry Lime character was quite clear.

    1. Yes, that makes a lot of sense and certainly that was applied here. For all of that however it is still Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard I give the credits.

  2. My biggest complaint here is that despite the topic and everything that should be an emotional roller coaster, this film is actually pretty emotionally vacant. The scene in the hospital where Holly sees the young kids damaged by his friend should be gutting and it's just kind of...there. It's almost factual rather than emotional. It comes off as cold, which is a real strike against it. That said, it's just about technically perfect, and the introduction of Welles onscreen is one of the greatest in film history.

    1. You have a point there. That scene in the hospital could have been developed a lot more, but I wonder if that was intentional. We have to be kept balancing like Martins between supporting or obstructing the police. If Lime became too much of a monster the balance would tip. Still when you think of it the horror Lime caused is so grave that you only really need a glimpse.

  3. I knew you were coming up to The Third Man and was looking forward to your review. It is one of my very favorite films and one of the ones that made me a classical film buff. I envy you the chance to see it for the first time! But then it is good every time ...

    I really enjoyed your review. It's one of those films where I would have a hard time coming up with much beyond every single thing about it is great. I love Joseph Cotten here. He gets overshadowed by Welles but is actually playing the harder part to perfection.

    1. I guess my choice of movies is rather predictable :-)
      I have been looking forward to this one as well and it is rare that such high expectations actually get fulfilled, but that is the case here. There is so much good stuff in this movie, a 10/10 really.