The Third Man Reviews
A masterpiece in noir stylistic tricks with its layered mystery, shadowy shots, and ever-present dutch low angles, this film is a delight for the eyes. Each shot is reminiscent of the best of the old black and white noirs, especially the film's final shot; men just look better with fedoras and cigarettes.
Occasionally hard to follow, the plot is well-crafted, full of a few unexpected twists, and it's a pity that Orson Welles's fantastic performance is so short; the film comes alive when he's on the screen.
Overall, this is a wonderful popcorn film and a classic of its genre.
"You've never met anyone like him!"
Film Noir is a genre that I really enjoy, and when I see a really good one, like The Third Man; it is an extreme joy. This not only rivals any Noir you could name, but probably exceeds it in just about every category imaginable. This is brilliantly conceived and executed stuff, with some of the best scenes I have seen from any film. The final chase scene was really well shot and definitely sits as one of the better chase scenes in film history. I'm someone who can get bored two or three minutes into a chase scene, but I could have watched this one all day and never have gotten bored. Along with how well shot the film is, it also has one of the more unique musical scores I have heard. It isn't your typical thriller score, and adds an element to the film that others in the genre just don't have.
The Third Man is also brilliantly acted. Joseph Cotten plays the lead, Holly Martins extremely well. Holly comes to Vienna to work and stay with an old friend, Harry Lime. Upon arriving there, he is told that Harry is dead and arrives just in time to see Harry's funeral. Holly then begins to investigate the death as things just aren't adding up. The start of the film is good, but when Orson Welles makes his first appearance as a shadowy face on a dark street, the film takes off and soars to not only classic status, but masterpiece status. The film is smart, funny, suspenseful, and entertaining beyond what you could think.†
If you're a film buff, this is one of the must, must sees. It's one of those films you must see before you die and if you don't, well, you missed out on something special. Now that I've finally seen the film, I'll probably end up watching it a good twenty more times in my life. It's that good. I could also see it being potentially more fun to watch a second time around knowing everything that is going to happen.†
I'll end with a quote from Roger Ebert on The Third Man.
"Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies."
Here's the thing: this is a great movie, yes, a classic sure, but a true masterpiece? Not quite. It gets a solid A, but I don't think it is quite good enough to warrant a full 5 or an A+. Considering how people now feel about this film, that sounds like sacrilege, but listen, I really, really dug this a lot, I just have some issues that are gnawing at me is all.
The story is a decent, if typical noir mystery thriller, but it also seemed underwhelming to me. Martins is not really someone I found myself caring for too much, and his involvement in things just didn't really click for me. Maybe it's because I'm looking at this film from a modern viewpoint. Even if I do look at it in the context of the late 1940s, the story still seems a little typical and unoriginal. Of course, almost nothing really is original, but I think you get what I mean. I like the tension, danger, and mystery, but things just didn't feel as satisfying as they should. I loved the ending though. That was a nice touch. That was not the original ending that Graham Greene wanted, but I think it works better this way. The original ending would have seemed too unrealistc and false.
That's it. That's really my big major issue holding this thing back by a half star. Sounds silly, but there it is. The rest of this film is pure dynamite. The look, use of light and shadows, the camera work, camera placement, all great stuff. Some of the Dutch angles are more subtle than others, but they all achieve the same effect. What this story falters with in sotry is made up for with mood, tone, and atmosphere. This film would be terrible if it wasn't in black and white.
Good performances, even though I found myself a little detached from the characters. The twisty plot was not bad, even though I guessed some of the twists (not all though). Even though Martins kind of bugged me, Cotton did a great job. Sometimes I forget that not all characters are supposed to be likeable (buit that's not the case here. Wellles is great, but is anyone really surprised? I actually really liked Alida Valli the most. Her performance is great.
Something that surprised me was the score, played entirely on a zither. It was not what I expected. Given that this is a moody film noir, I expected something a little ominous and dark. The score contrasts this, but not in a bad way. This technique of purposely using contrasting music doesn't always work, but here it did. Now that I think about it, using expected dark and ominous music would have been too obvious. The score ends up really adding to the situations and mise-en-scene like the lighting and cinematography.
Of course I recommend this. I don't regret what I've said about this film, and have no qualms about anyone overlooking the things I took issues with. I do it with other films, but didn't feel right doing it here. I'll leave you with one final observation: I love how the stroy was put into the context of post-WWII aftermath. Casablanca did something similar, but took placee (and was made) during the war. A similar modern example of crafting a film around a city connected to a horrific event would be 25th Hour, and it's take on post-9/11 New York, another great film I suggest watching.
This is a classic bit of British cinema that owes a lot to the source material (Graham Green) and the slanted, moody cinematography throughout. The story is quite straight forward and can be perceived more complicated than it is. The best bits of the story come early, with Martins investigating the accident against a backdrop of secrecy and cover-ups, and later when he confronts Lime briefly on a Ferris wheel. The story is mainly a story of friendship and morals packed into a mystery setting. The final shot of the film is really good and gives a realistic (if not happy) end to the story.
Joseph Cotton was always good around this period and seemed to be on a roll when he teamed up with Wells. Here he is good as Martin, even if his character is not as interesting as Harry Lime is. Orson Wells is excellent, casting a huge shadow (literally!) over the film despite having a very short time onscreen compare to Cotton. The director and the writer fought the producer to cast Wells in order to make the film more sellable to the American audience (the producer wanted NoŽl Coward) and the film is much better for their choice. His character hugely lacks morals and, despite being a small hustler, is almost a demonic figure - most notably in his speech on the Ferris wheel where he defends his actions to Martin.
The film is given a great mood of shadows throughout. The city itself is shown as both beautiful and in ruins and is constantly slanted and shadowy. The final confrontation in the sewers of Vienna is excellent. The score is also good - at first it doesn't seem to fit, as it seems out of step with the mood, but it does work well with the culture that exists in the city at the time - I can't really explain it better than that but it does work.
Overall this is a classic. The story may not be enough to support repeat viewings but the moody, the cinematography and a towering performance by Wells all make this essentially viewing for film fans.
For its first hour, The Third Man is a potentially enthralling and atmospheric crime drama which is undermined by a series of creative mistakes. The first and most obvious problem is the soundtrack, provided by the acclaimed zither player Anton Karas. If Reed had used his compositions sparingly, this could have been an effective way of setting the scene, an intelligent means to take the audience into the cultural heart of post-war Vienna. Instead it is plastered over nearly every scene, undercutting some of the most dramatic moments and becoming steadily more irritating as the film rolls on.
Up until the arrival of Orson Welles, The Third Man seems very unsure as to what kind of storyline it wants to follow. At the centre of it is the story about Holly Martins looking for Harry Lime, questioning all the people who saw 'the accident' and extracting information. The plot twists in classic noir style, and our protagonist is typically downbeat, and when the film is focussing on the central premise (finding 'the third man') it feels thrilling and intimidating, as the military and public begin to obstruct Martins' investigations.
The problem is that this attractive central story is competing for screen time with a number of sub-plots, which are either unnecessary or distracting. The entire subplot about Martins' lecture to the literary club is overdone: it serves its initial purpose of getting him to stay in Vienna, but after that it isn't sure how to resolve itself. Martins' lecture, in which he is dismissed and humiliated, feels like a lift from The 39 Steps, only here the humour which results is severely out of kiltre.
The romantic relationship between Martins and Anna also feels half-hearted and repetitive. Graham Greene's dialogue is generally good but he struggles to move the relationship on from the initially functional exchanges. There isn't the same kind of suppressed sexual magnetism that there is in Chinatown, nor does our heroine display quite the same strength of character. Towards the end, when Martins begins bringing her flowers and she begins to grow angry at the mention of Harry's name, Anna's emotional state and true intentions become clear, but the film could have benefited from hurrying this development along.
For all that has just been said, The Third Man is visually effective even when its character arcs begin to flounder. Robert Krasker's cinematography is very atmospheric. During the night shoots in both Vienna and Shepperton, the cobbled streets were sprayed with water to reflect more of the artificial light, and throughout the use of exaggerated shadows is very effective. These expressionistic gestures make the story edgier, recalling the work of Franz Kafka or Edvard Munch.
You also have to admire The Third Man simply for how cynical it is. Being a film noir, we don't expect the protagonist to be all bright-eyed and chirpy. But The Third Man does manage to capture the sense of post-war malaise, and in the case of Harry Lime take it to dangerous extremes. The film's repeated shots of rubble, dirty apartments and people sweeping are interesting, showing the day-to-day consequences of 'liberation' from Nazism. The slow speed at which life returns to normality is not something which comforts Vienna's inhabitants. Either it dulls them into resigned silence, or it serves as a golden opportunity for personal gain at the expense of others.
For all its interesting gestures, the film only really picks up when Orson Welles arrives on screen. It is quite simply impossible to make Welles appear uncharismatic, and from the second his face is illuminated he is the only one you are interested in. His presence, both physical and intellectual, hangs over The Third Man, to the point at which you start looking for moments in which he might have snuck behind the camera (though sadly, any rumours of Welles 'co-directing' are untrue).
The character of Harry Lime is fascinating because he is completely amoral and unrepentant. He doesn't care about other people, treating his best friend as a potential business partner and referring to people as 'little dots'. And yet, in spite of all this, we find ourselves caring for him. We are charmed by his playfulness, warmed by his blustering smile, and even saddened when Martins has to shoot him. Just like The Silence of the Lambs, the greatest strength of the film is its demonstration of how human, and rational, and likeable evil can be, and as a result how prone we are to either ignoring or accepting it.
All of which raises the question: if Welles is so effective, why not bring him on sooner? Why is he merely talked about for so long, when surely it would be more effective for him to sporadically appear from the shadows?
To understand the implications of Welles' entrance, we have to jump forward thirty years to Alien and the nerve-jangling tension achieved by Ridley Scott. In Alien we are briefly introduced to the evil at the beginning, and the tension mounts because of the subsequent lack of information. We never know where it will strike again, or when, or how, or why all of this is happening; add in the claustrophobic setting of the Nostromo and you have everything you need for sheer, unrelenting terror. The Third Man has the same lack of escape route, but it relies too much on reputation building and talking up the character, rather than attempting anything more adventurous.
The best scene in the entire film is the sewer chase, because it contains none of the flaws which scuppered the earlier scenes. Here there is no annoying music, no drawn-out dialogue, no inappropriate comedy and no rambling sub-plots. Instead we have nail-biting suspense aggravated by the realistic sounds of water, footsteps and echoed shouting; sections of this chase would make Hitchcock proud. One special moment comes when Lime is standing at the mouth of the tunnels, all of which are echoing with sounds of police and dogs, and he cannot decide where to run. The image of his hands reaching up through the grill is brilliant, and his entire death sequence is very moving.
The Third Man is a film of two halves. The first half ties itself in knots, complicating an interesting crime story with unnecessary entanglements with peripheral characters. Once Welles arrives, however, all is well and the film does what it was always meant to do, exploring the dark underbelly of post-war life. For every moment which delights you, whether in the chase sequence or the speech in the fairground, the prevailing feeling is one of frustration: for every second Welles is on screen, you can't help wishing you'd seen him earlier. For all its faults, The Third Man is still a decent film, but it is not the finest work of either Welles or Reed. It's an interesting chapter in both their careers, but it cannot come close to their defining works.