Sunday, June 6, 2010
The Third Man
The Third Man (1949) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard
By Alan Bacchus
"The Third Man" might just be the absolute greatest film noir ever made. A stunning potboiler about an American man investigating the death of his friend in post-War Vienna. Carol Reed’s contrasty black and white skewed frames, sharp political wit and one of the great third act reveals in history make the film essential viewing for anyone who likes watching movies.
The political jungle of post-war Vienna is seen from the point of view of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton). As the narrator (an omniscient one in the British version and Joe Cotton in the American) tells us, Vienna is divided into four quarters, British, American, Russian and French, with no one speaking the same language. Out of greed and necessity a black market for almost anything has emerged and with it all the nefarious smarmy characters we expect from a film noir.
Martins arrives in Vienna summoned for a job by his friend Harry Lime, unfortunately immediately discovering Harry was recently been hit by a trolly and died. But as Holly meets and questions the supposed witnesses to the event shifty eyes, and inconsistent recollections point to a conspiracy. With investigative sleuthing Holly uncovers a plot which involves illegal black market pencillin, and eventually, the discovery, of well… it can’t really be a spoiler 60 years later can it?…. Harry Lime himself still alive having faked his own death.
Graham Greene, the great novelist and screenwriter, is careful to unfold the story. Everyone seems to be on edge and untrustworthy of anyone. The antagonists in the story, a trio of black marketeers, are sophisticated and blend in with the refined polish of their British pursuers. The primo of polish is Harry Lime, when he’s eventually revealed, played by Orson Welles as one of the most famous villains in film history. When we first see Welles, he gives Holly, and the audience, a devious little smirk, before disappearing off into the night. And his dialogue with Joseph Cotton on the ferris wheel is one of the great exchanges in cinema. Cotton and Welles, two old pals from the Mercury theatre, Radio, Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons, bounce the lines off each other with natural ease with Welles using his body language and subtle innuendos in conveying Lime’s threats to Martins.
Carol Reed’s nighttime shooting of Vienna embellishes all the noir-ish texture of genre. The desolate streets and underground sewer systems which the characters chase each other through are lit with harsh contrasty light placed low to the ground creating long ominous shadows and highlighting the rough cobblestoned streets. It’s unnatural but a distinct exaggerated expressionistic aesthetic.
I’ve never heard this said, but I can’t help but think the starkness of Welles’ own “Touch of Evil”, made years later, was influenced by “The Third Man”. If not by the stylish camerawork, then the use of the city locale as a character or the distinct and discongruous musical choices of Anton Karas and Henry Mancini.
"The Third Man" is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection