This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day. Check out other classic film reviews and lovers here.
There might be no film in the history of cinema that is as enigmatic and special as Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). A film that has it all: perfect director, brilliant writer, fantastic cast, stylized cinematography, efficient editing, and one of the most memorable scores ever paired with celluloid. It is one of those special films that encapsulates everything that makes going to the movies and watching the classics special and important. The film hits every note right on point and never over does it. It is a lean piece of cinematic joy and purity that has never let go of the imagination and possibilities of cinema. The Third Man is why the movies are such a wonderful and personal experience. The Third Man is by far and away one of the best films ever made.
You know the story, and if you do not, please go out and watch this film as soon as possible, you will not be disappointed. An alcoholic writer of pulp westerns, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), travels to Vienna after receiving an invitation from his longtime friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). The city, war-torn and in rubble after the devastation of World War II, is broken up into four sections, each one controlled by the French, British, Russian and Americans. Vienna is a haven for black marketeers and any smuggler trying to make a quick buck. To his surprise and bewilderment, Lime is pronounced dead and Martins arrives at his funeral. The search is on. What happened to Harry? He sees a young woman who appears to have known Harry and tracks her down. He hopes that Anna (Alida Valli) has some answers to this mysterious occurrence with Mr. Lime. And by the way, Anna was, and still is, in love with Lime, and Martins falls for her immediately. Martins is a lost child in a beaten down Europe with no knowledge of what has happened to his friend.
Martins meets with a British officer, Calloway (Trevor Howard), also in an attempt to uncover the disturbing and troubling results of his friend winding up dead upon his arrival to Vienna. Calloway did not find Lime to be a pleasant man, as he describes to Martins that Lime was working in a penicillin racket, diluting it for a profit, resulting with horrifying results for sick patients in need of the medicine. He recommends that Martins goes back to the states, but he stays and begins to investigate what happened to his friend. The whole of this film noir masterpiece is Martins trying to uncover how his friend died.
What a movie! I was blown away the first time I saw this film, and I have now seen it at least six or seven times in the last five years. It is a classic, a masterpiece and a film like no other. I heard that zither music, performed by Anton Karas, and it has never left me. It was so full of wonderment and playfulness. It was uneven at times, but so was Vienna. It bopped and weaved throughout the entirety of the film, and director Carol Reed insisted, at the behest of American producer David O. Selznick, that this be the only musical instrument in the film and Karas play it all. Man, did that choice pay off. The score leads to mystery, humor and dark intrigue. The score is the film. It is its backbone and current.
Then you have the brilliant direction from British director Carol Reed and British writer Graham Greene. When I was talking earlier about the film having it all, look at these two legends. Reed, who has become even more of an auteur and legendary director as the years have gone by — look at The Fallen Idol, Odd Man Out, Night Train to Munich and Outcast of the Islands — and was a consummate professional. He directed The Third Man, his finest achievement, with a steady precision and unhinged touch. Everything is a little off, a little weird, a little disturbed, yet, there is this undercurrent of mysterious humor that hangs over the whole of the film like a low hanging rain cloud. And the choice to shoot on location in war stricken Vienna was pure genius. The film would have never been the same if it had been shot on sets. You cringe at the rubble of war, you feel the wetness and the cold in the streets and in the air. Then you have one of the greatest writers of all time, Graham Greene, pen the screenplay, which moves along at a crisp, smooth, delightfully film noirish pace, much of which is also appreciated to editor Oswald Hafenrichter. It has that investigated drama feel to it, with action to round out its beauty. Great minds and talents on full display.
One of the abundant things that is so iconic about the The Third Man is the iconic cinematography from Robert Krasker, who won the Oscar in 1951 for Best Black and White Cinematography, and rightfully so. It is one of the best shot films in the history of cinema. The shadows are all over and the canted angles that not only show a strong German expressionism influence, but show a city, a story and a continent out of whack. The big action sequence, a chase scene through the sewers (that were initially supposed to be filmed in Vienna, but Welles did not approve and they were shot in England on a set) are shot with such bravado, sophistication and edge. It works brilliantly due to the exceptional spacing, lensing and lighting from Krasker.
But how can you have a great film without great roles and actors who get it and know how to bring it at the highest level without taking away from the power and perfection of the story at hand. Cotten is an American as you can get it in this film. He comes in with personal baggage on him, but a wide-eyed, American attitude to the situation with the death of Lime and reality of Europe in recovery. He is simplistic, but persistent. Martins will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his friend. Valli is exotic and mysterious. A European beauty mixed up with the wrong people and unwilling, or dissatisfied, with moving on with her life after the war. She is illegally residing in Vienna and has struggled with the effects of the Nazi stronghold in Europe her entire life. Then you have Howard, who is at is utmost British. A veteran of not only the war, but the reality and impact it as had on his country and the European continent. These are three main characters throughout and all of them thought out sufficiently and acted to perfection.
And then, Mr. Orson Welles. In one of cinemas most powerful, showy and fascinating entrances, he arrives. The entire film his character has been the driving force for the narrative. Everyone is talking about him. Everyone wants to know the why’s and how’s. Then, a shadowy doorway, the meow of a cat, a shot of his shoes and then, as Martins is looking his way, Welles’ face appears. A slight smirk, which adds to the charm and undertone of humor sprinkled throughout the film, an acknowledgement towards Martins, and poof, he is gone. Was it a dream or an illusion? No. Then we get the meet at the ferris wheel between Martins and Lime, which concludes with the famous “cuckoo clock” dialogue that Welles wrote himself. Iconic, legendary and never duplicated. The entrance, the ferris wheel and the chase scene. That is it for Welles, but what mesmerizing, power the biggest figure in American cinema delivers in The Third Man. It is so fantastic and satisfying. It is cinematic perfection. Welles’ entrance works every time and gives me chills every time I watch the film.
All of this talent, not mention two legendary producers in the aforementioned Selznick and Alexander Korda, and the result is beyond words. So much has been written and said about this film and what else can I add other than my staunch appreciation and admiration for every aspect of the film. What makes it a true masterpiece is when all these talents and all these elements come together and the result is so perfect. The film is still stunning all of these years later. The biggest and best, working together and delivering one of the finest films in the history of cinema. There is not a false note throughout its one hundred and four-minute run time. A truly genre defining film noir and easily one of the best. It showed the aftermath and brutality of dictatorship and oppression in Europe. The desolation of one of Europe’s finest cities. It also shows the varying realities, personalities and lasting effects of what was going on in Europe after the war. The uneasiness of the Europeans and the somewhat optimism of the Americans. It is a film like none other. A masterpiece that ranks amongst the finest films every made and the truly groundbreaking special ones — Rashomon, Breathless, Tokyo Story, La dolce vita, Sunset Boulevard and The Godfather (I & II) — just to name a few. It is true cinema.
Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a masterpiece and honestly, my favorite film of all time. A film so rich in history, place and film noir craft. A film that grows in appreciation and value with every viewing, review and enriches all of us with the possibilities of what cinema can and should be. The first time seeing this film will always be one of those special times where film became more than just entertainment for me. Film has the power to move you and wrap you up in a world that is beyond the one you are in. The Third Man is one of those special films that gets better every time you see it and one that will live on for generations to come. The Third Man is what the movies are all about.
Photo credit by Criterion.