The Third Man (1949)

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We’re back to working through the lists of the best films of all time and this time it’s The Third Man, a film that is often acknowledged as one of best noirs ever made. Noir is a genre that is usually seen as American so this film already differentiates itself by being a British film, albeit one with an American protagonist. It was directed by Carol Reed (who despite the first name is a man) but most critics note that it should really be seen as a close collaboration between Reed and the writer of the screenplay, novelist Graham Greene.

In 1949, Vienna is an occupied city divided into British, French and Russian zones. An American writer of pulp fiction novels, Holly Martins, is invited to the city by an old childhood friend, Harry Limes, who has been living in and running a racket in the city for a while now. Unfortunately he arrives just in time to attend his friend’s funeral as he has died. In the meantime, he meets other friends of Harry’s who are obviously up to no good, Major Calloway who runs the British police and is investigating the case and a theater actress who is in love with Harry. All the clues point towards Harry’s death being no accident and Holly is determined to stay in Vienna to get to the truth even as everyone else keeps warning him to stay away.

I’ve never watched this film before but I kept having a vague sense that all this seemed familiar. In fact, it reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German which I now realize was heavily inspired by The Third Man down to the black-and-white photography and the setting of a city divided between different occupying powers. To tell the truth, I actually find the more sophisticated plot of the newer film to be more interesting but in just about every other respect, it’s just a pale imitation of the original. George Clooney and Tobey Maguire just can’t hold a candle to Joseph Cotten, who plays Holly, and Trevor Howard, who plays Major Calloway. Plus of course, when Orson Welles shows up, he steals every scene he’s in.

The film owes more than just this to Welles. The camera often frames shots with skewed angles, a disconcerting effect accentuated by the use of harsh lighting. Some critics went so far as to claim that Welles must have been the real director as the visual influence of films like Citizen Kane is obvious. The film is also known for its very distinctive, and at least at first very jarring, musical score which uses only the zither. It’s certainly not any kind of music that one usually associates with noir films. That’s sort of the running theme of The Third Man. It’s a noir, but its Britishisms, how it handles the traditional femme fatale, the fact that its protagonist is a writer who is clearly out of his depth instead of a hard-boiled private detective and even the charm of its supposed villain makes it stand apart from American noirs.

There are enough flaws that I wouldn’t consider this to one of my favorite noirs. Holly Martins sort of just flails around Vienna and stumbles upon the secret by almost pure luck. I also though that the climactic chase scene dragged on for too long, perhaps in order to feature Welles more as he shows up so late in the film. But I happily acknowledge that it’s more than earned its status as a great classic of the genre and it should be pleasantly watchable by pretty much all audiences.

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