Noir-vember Day Nine: The Third Man (1949) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Noir-vember Day Nine: The Third Man (1949)

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It is certainly a cliché to call Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) a brilliantly written, visually iconic piece of cinema, but such high praise is neither histrionic nor hyperbolic. While much of noir cinema seems outdated, plodding, or convoluted when held against modern storytelling and visual panache, Reed’s film is just as engaging, as relevant, and as influential as much more contemporary films. Orson Welles’ Harry Lime and Anton Karas' score may get much of the credit for the success and popularity of “The Third Man,” but each performance– and each shot– seems tailor-made for a script that still stands as a high-water mark for thrillers. And, sure, Welles certainly lends a presence that is at once menacing and wholly entertaining, in one of the most memorable villainous turns in cinematic history.

At its core, author and screenwriter Graham Greene’s story is equal parts black comedy and thriller. Joseph Cotten stars as Holly Martins, an American in Vienna searching the city's black market for the killer of his best friend Harry Lime. What Martins quickly discovers is that there's something truly shady about the story of Harry's death; it seems the charasmatic Mr. Lime was also a notorious racketeer and generally unsavory, manipulative character. The film is further rounded out by a series of note-perfect performances: Alida Valli plays a Czechoslovakian actress who is both a former love of Lime’s and wanted by the Russian police; Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee both make the most of seemingly inconsequential roles while Ernst Deutsch's provides adroit creepiness as the disturbing Baron Kurtz. With a plethora of great performances, and the beautiful scenery of war-ravaged Vienna, it’s incredibly easy to ignore the script’s shortcomings in plot and simply sit back and enjoy the show.

Joseph Cotton bumbles about Vienna in a desperate search.

It has long been rumored that Welles may have helmed, or simply rewritten, various scenes in “The Third Man,” but it is Reed who must receive credit for the film’s look and feel. Vienna is at once quite beautiful and incredibly gritty; even the ravages of war– and the social and political corruption that seeps from every corner of the city– cannot disguise one of the world’s most beautiful locales. Often shot at extreme angles and under unnatural lighting conditions, many scenes throughout the film have an unsettling, foreboding aesthetic that provides the perfect backdrop to the unraveling mystery. In fact, it’s easy to see many of these same Dutch angles and extreme lighting styles used almost as effectively in Welles’ own Touch of Evil.

Although he is technically a supporting character, Welles often receives the lion’s share of both praise and examination; though it seems hackneyed now, a famous personality making a villainous turn was a largely unexplored inversion of expectation back in 1949. This off-kilter bit of casting– and the fact that the villain has all the best lines and limited screen time– places an odd pall over everything in the film. While much of The Third Man seems congruent with the noir aesthetic, these subtle changes offer an odd tension to every scene in the film.

Who is that mysterious man?

Lime steals each of his scenes, but it the famous Ferris wheel scene that is most iconic. Shot using a combination of sets and locations, it is this scene where Lime most famously espouses his fatalistic but erudite philosophy. When speaking with Holly, Lime notes, "In Switzerland they had 500 years of brotherly love and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." These lines seem to perfectly summarize Lime’s position on capitalism. In the same scene scene, Lime discusses his insouciance over life and death, saying, Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Again, the comic bent of the film becomes evident, with Lime’s words coming across as horrifying and comedic. This juxtaposition typifies much of the film, and the duality of Lime’s character is one of the many traits that make the villain a such an archetypal figure.

There have been entire books written on the style, tone, and technique behind The Third Man, and no single review can do the film true justice; suffice it to say, however, that each component is artfully constructed and beautifully realized. Not all allegedly “classic” films are actually worth watching, but The Third Man epitomizes classic film techniques and storytelling. The film may be best remembered for its villain, but every element– from the music and sound to the cinematography and acting– works together to construct something greater than the sum of its parts.

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Posted by Andrew

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