Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Third Man (1949) - Perfection from the Masters

Orson Welles Conducts an Acting Clinic in "The Third Man"

DVD cover The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
"The Third Man" (1949).

You don't get any better than "The Third Man" (1949), directed by Carol Reed for London Film Productions from a story and screenplay by . Sure, you have many, many other screen classics. But this is the best film noir ever made. It is the best of its kind. In terms of overall quality, "The Third Man" is right up there with "Casablanca" or "Gone With the Wind" or any classic film you care to name.

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles: you know too much...

"The Third Man" was "in the present time" when made. Regardless, even then it was quite exotic due to its Eastern European setting. Americans of the time knew about as much about post-war Vienna as they did about the Moon. Vienna had been captured by Soviet troops in the waning days of World War II, and few Americans except service people were allowed in. For a time, it was demarcated in the same fashion as Berlin, though they never built a wall there as the Soviets had to in Germany. "The Third Man" is a fascinating glimpse at a time and a place that is gone and would be all but forgotten if it were not for this film.

Joseph Cotten Trevor Howard The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
Come on, old man, have something to drink. Trevor Howard provides a sympathetic shoulder for Joseph Cotten to cry on.

Well, that is nice but is not what makes the film an utter classic. Every shot counts, when appropriate there are extremely quick cuts, but also the seemingly endless final shot that was absolutely perfect. The directing is extraordinary, and even though he may have had nothing to do with the direction, one can see influences of Orson Welles' (playing heavy Harry Lime) style throughout the film - a panoramic shot from the top of a bridge showing the characters as small figures (small both in size and in the context of the aftermath of a great conflict) being the most obvious. Shots of Lime running down the street also capturing the Welles spirit. The off-kilter camera angles to signify when someone is likely lying, well, I don't know who came up with those, but whoever it was, he was a genius. The scenes with the cat who "only liked Harry" are delightful, and the final sequence where Anna Schmidt casts her final judgment on all that has gone before is one of the most touching scenes I can recall from any film. "The Third Man" is not really a mystery, but rather a tragic romance.

Orson Welles The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
Orson Welles has the best entrance in film history in "The Third Man" as arch-criminal Harry Lime.

The score of "The Third Man" is one of the most most memorable in film history, and, incredibly, it was uncredited. Anton Karas was a former Wehrmacht soldier who dabbled in zither music. Carol Green heard him in a local wine bar and decided to hire him. Karas basically only played one song, called "The Third Man Theme," but it was a song of such complexity and elegance, perfectly capturing the old world charm of historic Vienna, that it has gone down in film history. There is film of Karas playing the Third Man Theme on his zither, and he makes something incredibly difficult look easy. The music, though, is only the start to all the talent on parade. Orson Welles' performance was better than his much-lauded turn in "Citizen Kane" and, in fact, was the best of his career. Welles turned it into a personal cottage industry, making it into a radio show. Joseph Cotten's naive "innocents abroad" take on his role of hack writer Holly Martins, full of world weariness and frustration mixed with trepidation at all the strange characters surrounding him, was almost as good. The cinematography by Robert Krasker deserves special mention. It is the height of film noir, without intruding on the story or the film's flow and, in fact, enhancing it through contrast and focus.

Joseph Cotten The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
The Ferris Wheel of "The Third Man" looms in the background....

If you take one thing away from this review and then watch "The Third Man," I hope it is this: watch the famous ferris wheel scene very carefully. Listen carefully to what Harry Lime (Orson Welles) says about his girl Anna (Alida Valli). Then watch the final, justly famous scene, and put the two together in your mind. Gather in the irony, or the sweet justice of the two scenes side by side. Orson Welles was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for those paying attention, but it takes repeat viewings to pick up the nuances.

Joseph Cotten Ferris Wheel The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
Suddenly it is nearer, and more menacing, in "The Third Man."

The film is studded with classic character actor performances that are authentic to the time and place, something you definitely no longer see in mainstream Hollywood productions. Trevor Howard brilliantly captures the mood of a jaded career officer who provides the voice of reason throughout, but who knows he can't do a thing to prevent the unfolding tragedy before him. And I haven't even mentioned the obvious yet, the classic introduction of Harry, the ferris wheel scene (incidentally, if you want to be technical, the famous "cuckoo clock" speech occurs AFTER they are off the wheel), the wonderful "abduction" of Martins, the tragic broken teddy bear in the hospital, the famous "balloon man" scene which has been parodied many times. The use of shadow and light is the height of film noir, several times hidden characters are revealed only because of a momentary light, then become invisible again. Sound - background sound, not just the music, such as the echoing voices in the sewer - is also used incredibly effectively to underline the characters' emotions. Besides Krasker, Carol Reed deserves immense credit for putting everything together seamlessly.

Man at end of tunnel The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
A very powerful shot in "The Third Man."

The change in Martins throughout "The Third Man" is astonishing. Martins may be a blunderer, but at least is clever enough to both find the hidden Lime and then finally realize the horrible truth about him. Martins shows real character development that is so beautifully handled that you barely even notice it while it is happening. The fateful decisions at the end of "The Third Man" come so naturally and is so beautifully acted that you can only appreciate the film all the more for not trying to milk them for more effect.

Orson Welles in the sewer The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
Film noir at its best in "The Third Man."

Repeat viewings will be rewarded. Some of the subtle implications of Harry's association with the Soviet side may escape you at first as it did me. Lime's comment while with Martins on the ferris wheel about the people on the ground being mere dots that could be wiped out without feeling for the right price or reason - isn't that just what a WWII bombardier would think, or a modern-day button-pusher launching cruise missiles? There, the Lime character summed up the alienation and emotional numbness that must have gripped many former soldiers of his time and makes his character understandable, if not completely sympathetic. The fingers through the grate - the grate moves, I never noticed that until recently, could he have escaped if not for...?

Alida Valli The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
Alida Valli plays a haunted character in "The Third Man."

I characterize this as "intelligent" perfection. It is not for all modern tastes. It does not have the usual Hollywood cues or pacing. It has a definite European sensibility to it to go along with real Russians playing Russians, real Austrians playing Austrians, etc. I rate this film, in fact, as the best European film ever made, but really, it is a fully international production that transcends geography.

Final scene The Third Man 1949 Joseph Cotten Orson Welles
The ending of "The Third Man": maybe this time she'll stop....

I can understand younger, modern audiences finding "The Third Man" over-rated. If one is not looking for subtlety and atmosphere but something to excite you every five seconds, "The Third Man" might seem to drag, especially before Orson Welles shows up and sheds some daylight on what is really happening. But for a sophisticated audience that appreciates truly classic film-making and does not demand modern gimmicks, I think this is perhaps the best film ever made, right alongside "Citizen Kane" and a handful of others.

Below is the classic ending scene. He is as dead to her as the leaves and the graves.


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