*Note: This film is part of the 365 film guide I’m completing – the full list is on the tab bar above.
“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.”
The Third Man is the type of a film I wish I new absolutely nothing about before seeing. However, Carol Reed’s proclaimed 1949 “masterpiece” receives a lot of talk amongst film lovers, so I went into the film with a mindset that it was going to be amazing, one of the best films ever made – like so many others have said.
I watched carefully and was left a bit unsatisfied. Now that may not be the film’s fault but mine. Still, when all of those notions and preconceptions are set aside, I must value the film on its own merit.
The Third Man is a good film, but it suffers from a story that’s not entirely coherent and a midsection that’s often sluggish. Regardless of its shortcomings, though, this atmospheric film noir is sometimes exhilarating and contains a brilliant final 25 minutes, including some of the most iconic sequences in cinematic history: the Ferris wheel scene, the finale chase in the sewers and the entrance of Harry Lime.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching The Third Man, the plot follows Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) – a romantic pulp novelist who after arriving in post-World War II Vienna finds out that is friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has died. The shock of this news is both confusing and upsetting to Holly. He quickly feels compelled to play detective in order to figure out who killed Harry and why. Soon Holly starts to unravel surprising revelations about Harry’s life.
Reed, who went on to win the best director Oscar for the 1968 Academy Award-winning best picture Oliver!, crafts every scene meticulously and beautifully. For example, there’s a shot in the film in which we see Harry for the first time. Beyond being an iconic entrance, it’s what comes after that counts. We get a chase between Harry and Holly. Reed’s capturing of the omnipresent city and the use of the shadows makes for one of the most satisfying sequences I’ve ever seen.
But the best scene has to be the Ferris wheel sequence, which is the first and only time we receive an honest conversation between Harry and Holly. The quote mentioned at the top of my review is amongst the topics being discussed. Just watching these two masterful actors verbally battle each other is quite wonderful. Within that 5-7 minute scene the honest nature of the film is revealed: The Third Man is dark, sad, and sometimes upsetting. But it’s about friendship, existential loss and ultimately betrayal.
Don’t let Reed fool you though. The Third Man will leave you cold – which is perhaps the film’s biggest inconsistency. It’s very reminiscent of 1941′s The Maltese Falcon in the way it lacks an emotional element. We do care for Harry and Holly and Anna (Harry’s lover who follows Holly around looking for – soon to get departed), but the film makes no real effort to provide us with any genuine, heart-tugging emotion. Maybe that’s not the point of the story. Perhaps we are to feel as cold as Harry, a character who won’t even search for his lover and kills others for the sake of $20,000.
Also beloved by film lovers is Anton Karas’s score. Played on a zither, it’s a bit polarizing. In some scenes it’s a perfect balance of mystery and upbeat playfulness. However, in some of the more dramatic sequences, it’s a bit distracting and detracts from the overall impact. Classic it may be, but perfect it is not.
Recently I chatted with James Blake Ewing, among others, about The Third Man. He made an interesting remark by talking about how the film should “work” for everyone. Sure, some may love the film more than others, but there’s enough in Reed’s picture for any cinema fan to enjoy. What an accomplishment that truly is.
While the film certainly has its fair share of flaws in narrative and emotion, this is a quintessential for any film enthusiast considering the exceeding amount of influence this film has had on cinematic history and modern-day culture. The Third Man is an exciting, enigmatic, and gorgeously atmospheric film noir, one that unfortunately bestows a notion of greatness nearly impossible to live up to.
Oh, how I dread those insurmountably high expectations.
Note: As I watched the film on Netflix Instant, the film is sometimes so dark you can’t tell what’s going on. Obviously not Reed’s fault, as it was intent for the big screen, not Netflix Instant Watch.