The Third Man (1949)
It's probably pretty easy to forget that the 1949 film "The Third Man" is first and foremost a thriller. Etched on the idea of a murder mystery, the film is wicked fun, plunging from one twist to another turn. It features truly remarkable and genuine performances from its cast—it doesn't Hollywood-ize its material.
Unfortunate is it that now the film is remembered most for its reveal and for the cinematography of the shadows on the walls...there's much more to it than both those things. Filled with intense one-line musings that can change the meaning of a scene in seconds, "The Third Man" exemplifies what is good about classic movies.
No where in today's cinema can you find such a deceivingly simple story told in such a off-kilter way. Most of the shots included in the film are at an angle, it looks like the set pieces from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari".
Sure it's revered by snobs and hipsters alike, but "The Third Man" outdoes the main man of suspense from this era of film: Alfred Hitchcock himself. Carol Reed, the Oscar winning directing, takes this piece and starts immediately. There is no half-hour introduction to the characters...we learn as we go along. Holly Martins (Joseph Cottens) is moving to Vienna, a city where there is much confusion. After the war, the city was split into four sections with four countries ruling each section. For the most part, German is the spoken language, which is unfortunate for Martins because he doesn't speak a single word of German.
Moving to Vienna because his friend Harry Lime offered him a job, Martins arrives only to find that Harry has been killed in a freak accident. By stepping out in the road, Harry got hit by a speeding car and died. Martins arrives just in time to witness his friend's funeral.
Now he's pretty confused because not only is his friend dead, but now he does not have a secure job or a place to live. He gets a ride from Major Calloway, who holds back no disdain for Martins' dead friend. According to the Major, Lime was involved in black market trafficking. After a few drinks, Martins is ready to punch someone out...which he tries to do when Calloway starts unleashing his opinion of Lime.
At the funeral, Martins saw a woman. As he starts to unravel the truth about Lime's death, Martins has to approach her. An actress of comedies, her name is Anna (who is almost a dead-ringer for Jennifer Lawrence).
What I really appreciate about the movie, more than the general noir feeling that permeates the film, is how un-American it is. It doesn't shy away from having lengthly scenes without an English word spoken.
The facts of Lime's death don't exactly add up. Testimonies don't line up, people vanish, and everyone seems determined not to let Martins know what's going on.
A writer of cheap western novels, Holly Martins perhaps feels that solving Lime's death (if there is, indeed, anything to solve) is a true act of art, he seems less interested in his novels than anyone else.
"The Third Man"naturally introduces the character of 'the third man', a being who appears in some people's stories and is left out of others.
Much like Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (his only Best Picture Winner) "The Third Man" has an unseen character being the center of everyone's dialogue for most of the movie. Harry Lime is spoken about in nearly every scene and when the third man gets introduced, he takes over the conversations.
The shadows move, the music swells (a score that is completely mostly on just the zither), and the confusion grows.
"The Third Man" is a great movie, plain and simple. It tells a compelling story in such a way that it remains diabolically entertaining. Not only does it use a ferris wheel as one of the best set pieces in cinema, but it uses lighting in a way that no film did before and no film has really done after.
The grandfather to films like "The Fugitive" and "The Usual Suspects", there is no escaping this movie when talking about classic cinema.
Beautiful in tender moments and merciless in its most chilling.
Posted by Micah Jones