Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Damien of Flashback/Backslide. Thanks for all the reviews, Damien! 🙂 Now let’s see what he thinks of The Third Man, IMDB rank 72 out of 250…
There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list of remaining films HERE. See the full list & links to all the reviews that have already been done HERE. Also, if you’d like to add a link to your IMDB review(s) on your own blogs, feel free to use any of the logos I’ve used at the top of any of these guest reviews.
The Third Man
Roger Ebert described film noir as the “most American film genre” but not all the Golden Age classics were American-made. British director Carol Reed created one of the most famous British noirs in 1949. The Third Man stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, two stars from Citizen Kane, and highlights some of the differences between British and American noirs. Using old noir guidelines as a map may lead you astray as the film follows its own course. Set in Allied-occupied Vienna, Cotten stars as Holly Martins, an American pulp fiction writer who travels to Vienna to work for his old friend Harry Lime. Soon Martins finds Lime was killed in an accident just a few days prior to his arrival and learns some unflattering facts about his friend. Sensing foul play, Martins begins an investigation along with Lime’s love interest Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli).
At the center of The Third Man‘s plot is a mystery and plot twist that feels very predictable, especially if you look at the roster of cast members before the film begins. But like many American noirs, the film centers on characters; the choices they make and their consequences. Martins struggles to reconcile memories of his friend with the Lime described by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Both Martins and Schmidt must choose to support Lime’s racket or aid Calloway’s efforts to undo Lime’s plots. The decisions ultimately feel inevitable but Cottens and Valli’s performances sell the character’s struggles.
Unlike the more detective-based American noirs, The Third Man does not involve on-screen characters outmaneuvering each other. The characters with all the answers to the film’s mystery are secondary with limited screen time, leaving the main cast confused and off-balance. This makes for a “softer” protagonist, more lost and confused than the hard-boiled leads of American films. What the film does have in common with other noir classics is the dark atmosphere and visual techniques of the genre. Dutch angles and harsh lighting are used throughout, almost too often. These techniques helps create uneasiness and tension but their use can feel artificial. At times we watch a character enter a cafe in a standard angle then take a seat at a booth. The camera adjusts to show the sitting character and suddenly a Dutch angle is used. Sudden shifts like this happen throughout and do more to draw attention to the camera-work than set a tone. To the film’s credit, these transitions may have been more novel in 1949, although some contemporary reviews chastised the dizzying views. Others were more appreciative. A New York Times review written in 1950 celebrated the camerawork:
For into this strangely off-beat story of a young American visitor’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of a friend’s dubious “death” in Vienna’s streets, Mr. Reed has brilliantly packaged the whole bag of his cinematic tricks, his whole range of inventive genius for making the camera expound. His eminent gifts for compressing a wealth of suggestion in single shots, for building up agonized tension and popping surprises are fully exercised. His devilishly mischievous humor also runs lightly through the film, touching the darker depressions with little glints of the gay or macabre.
-Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, February 3, 1950.
I’m making a note to myself to include “glints of the gay or macabre” in a future review. Crowther goes on to compliment the film’s music which features a zither “pulsing” in the background. I must admit, the music of the film grew tiresome quickly. Again this may be due to my modern ears reacting against a 60-year-old stylistic choice but the repetitive score underpinning moments big and small added more distraction than suspense or melancholy.
Ultimately, my appreciation for the film is dulled by my more modern eyes and ears yet the film still tells a captivating story brought to life by effective acting. Watching Orson Welles in his earlier years is always a treat and his brief scenes alone make the film worth a view. The film’s finale in the sewers of Vienna are also particularly effective. Rewatching the film with an eye for camera technique and Reed’s style might make for a more worthwhile viewing.
Classic Film Scale Rating: 7/10
Bottomline: A well-crafted yet dated mystery, The Third Man‘s well-developed characters, “bag of [noir] cinematic tricks”, and elaborate sewer finale make the film worthy of the praise it has received over the decades.
Thanks for reading!