Sunday, July 26, 2015

Blind Spot #5: The Third Man

Yes, I know, I have slacked terribly on this project. I've just been busier than I thought I would be and found myself wanting to do other things with my free time than watching movies (WHAT?!?!? BLASPHEMY!!!!). But then I saw that Carol Reed's The Third Man was playing at Film Forum, and I pretty much had to go. And I'm so glad I did, since the film was completely surprising in that it was not what I expected at all.

I've always heard The Third Man talked about as one of the greatest noir films. It may be, but it's a far far funnier film than I ever associated with the genre, which is defined by pitch-black films like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. The Third Man, while it has the necessary canted angles and deep shadows, simply doesn't FEEL like a noir. It's not even black comedy. Instead,  it's practically satire.
The downright jaunty zither score that opens the film is the first clue that this isn't going to be a dark twisty thriller. The second is Joseph Cotten, who isn't just playing a bumbling American in Austria - he's playing THE bumbling American (and it's a terrific performance as that). Sticking his nose in not just where it doesn't belong, but where it is neither needed nor wanted, Holly Martins is an author of cheap paperbacks with titles like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, and he plays that Western bully personality to the hilt, asking questions and butting in on international affairs because his best friend, Harry Lime, just couldn't POSSIBLY be the horrid racketeer this British officer says he is. Never mind that Lime died just before Martins arrived in Austria on his friend's invitation, Martins is going to prove everyone wrong.
Of course, if the canted angles were our first clue that something is rotten in the state of Austria, the second would be the name of Orson Welles in the credits. I don't know that the film necessarily plays differently knowing that Welles is playing Harry Lime, but I suspect that people would be on the lookout for him even if they didn't know, and with the amount of time spent talking about Lime, it's probably pretty clear that the man is nowhere near dead. Welles has said that all he had to do to play the part was to just show up, since the script does such a great job of building up Lime as a character, but I would disagree. The part cries out for someone like Welles; someone with a larger-than-life presence and a rather arch way of delivering a line. I mean, look at that face up above. That's when Lime makes his first appearance in the film, letting Martins know he's quite alive thank you very much, but not saying a single word. Very few actors could pull off a shot like that, and Welles is at the very top of that list.

But, as the reviews have said, the real star of the show is that climactic chase through the sewers, which boasts some of the greatest noir cinematography ever. It's not surprising that the film is labeled as noir when it includes shots like the one of Welles above, or like this one:
I mean, that is fucking GORGEOUS. And it's taking place in a sewer (well, not really. Apparently Welles refused to shoot any scenes in a sewer, so he shot his stuff on soundstages. But still...). Never has a drainage repository ever looked so beautiful.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Third Man. It is a film full of unexpected pleasures, from Trevor Howard's perfectly dry British colonel, to the hilariously sharp script by Graham Greene, to the great performances by Cotten and Welles, to that justly famed cinematography. It's rare that a film with such a reputation as this one has can actually surprise you, but that's exactly what this great film did.

...although it did take me a whole week to get that damn zither score out of my head!

The Third Man
Year: 1949
Directed by: Carol Reed
Screenplay by: Graham Greene
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, (Alida) Valli
Oscar: 1 WIN - Best Cinematography (Black & White). Nominations for Director (Reed lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for All About Eve) and Editing (lost to King Solomon's Mines)
Rating: ****


  1. I watched The Third Man for the first time last year and it instantly became one of my favourite films, Karas’ iconic score fits perfectly with the film, and no other city comes close to the beauty of four-power, post war Vienna. It’s the finest setting imaginable with it’s sharp angles and looming shadows, and the ruins of war gives it an emotional beauty no film-maker could design from scratch.
    Everything about this film feels slightly off-kilter, which is perfect because the viewer feels just the same as Holly venturing in for the first time.

    1. That's exactly right about the off-kilter feel of the film. I actually enjoyed the film a great deal more than it sounds from this, but I was so thrown by how different it was from what I was expecting. It threw me for a loop, but it was a good one.

  2. OMG, I would kill to see this on the big screen! I love this movie, and Welles is ICONIC! This film really excels in so much (that score, that cinematography, that writing, that acting) and I'm bummed it didn't make a real Oscar splash, but it's well revered now, so that's all that matters.

    1. I'm most surprised it didn't get Oscar noms for screenplay/story and score, and am a bit surprised that it didn't win for editing either (WTF is King Solomon's Mines?!?). It was very cool to see on the big screen. Thank God for Film Forum!

  3. I have to see this. It's been on my watch list for awhile now, and I just keep passing it up. Stellar, well-written review, man!

    1. Thanks, man - it really is a great film!