THE THIRD MAN (1949)

3rd-Man-5

Elizabeth (spoilers!)

When the opportunity came to see The Third Man in theaters, Chris and I had to take it, especially because I had never seen it before. And going into it, I knew I didn’t know what to expect, but I don’t think I realized how little I knew of the movie. First of all, I definitely thought it was a horror movie in the same vein as M. Pretty quickly though, the tone of The Third Man tells you that it’s not a horror movie. So it took me a few minutes to sort of readjust my thinking, but after that I was totally onboard.

There are really a lot of great things about The Third Man. To me, one of them is how simple the mystery starts. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is invited to Vienna by his oldest friend, Harry Lime – except Martins arrives the day of Lime’s funeral following his sudden death from being hit by a car. At the funeral, Holly meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a cop who says Lime was a criminal, and Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend. Martins finds out that Lime was crossing a street with a friend, when another friend called to him from across the street. Lime crossed without looking, was hit by a car, and his two friends carried him off the road where he later died. Except the porter of Lime’s apartment tells Martins that there was no way Lime didn’t die instantly and that there was a third man carrying Lime’s body. So really, it starts off as a simple mystery that Martins was trying to solve: who was the third man? But it very, very, very quickly becomes  much more complicated, starting with the porter getting murdered.

In Anna’s apartment, Martins tries to play with her cat by dangling string in front of its face, which the cat clearly doesn’t care about. Anna says “He only liked Harry,” and the scene moves on as they talk inside her apartment. But a few minutes later, we follow Anna’s cat as it hops out of her window and starts trotting along the street. He goes into a dark entryway, where we only see a pair of shoes – and he immediately starts placing with the laces. Now, not only is this such a good way to reveal that Lime is alive, but it also uses a cute cat to further the story, which I always appreciate. But anyway, that reveal is so great and profound – it’s shocking (or was to me, at least) and once you make the connection between cat-Lime-cat-Lime, it suddenly puts an entirely new spin on the whole movie.

At this point, Martins has no idea what to believe. He travelled to Vienna to see his good, honest, alive friend, Harry. He arrives in Vienna to learn that Harry is dead. He is told by the police that Harry is evil. He sees Harry, confirming that Harry is not dead. But is he evil? Well . . . yeah, he is. Calloway doesn’t tell Martins about Lime at first – which is something I really loved about Calloway (that and the fact that Martins kept calling him Callahan, which the British-Not-Irish Major wasn’t all that happy about). He could have told Martins about Lime on the day of the funeral, but he really chose to not tell him until it was really necessary. Because what Lime was really doing was stealing penicillian from military hospitals, diluting the shit out of it, and then selling it on the black market – causing the deaths and ill-treatment of hundreds, mostly children. It’s a hard pill to swallow for Martins, and he’s reluctant to believe it, but when Calloway takes him to a hospital that seems to mostly care for infants infected with the bad penicillan, he’s moved to completely believe Calloway.

Martins agrees to meet with Lime at a ferris wheel, where Lime very casually and cooly basically admits to Martins that he’s a psychopath by saying “What if I told you I could give you twenty thousand pounds for every one of those little dots down there?” The little dots, of course, are the people walking around beneath the ferris wheel. Lime says it so casually and openly, it’s as if he thinks Martins would be a total idiot to not agree. I just love that while Calloway tipped Martins off to Lime’s true nature, it was Lime himself who really revealed that to Martins.

Martins helps Calloway and the police track Lime down through the sewers of Vienna, Lime killing cops along the way. Eventually, Martins takes it upon himself to kill Lime once he’s cornered. It’s a bittersweet end in a way, as Martins loses his best friend (and kills him himself) and Anna loses the man she loves. But a man who was essentially a child murderer was killed, so it’s not that bad. So just like everything else in The Third Man, the ending isn’t even all that black-and-white.

Moreso than a lot of movies from around 1949, The Third Man has such incredibly rich, developed characters. The cast isn’t huge, so everyone gets a chance to shine and have their character mean something. This is just a really special movie.

Christopher

My memory of when I actually first saw this movie is a little vague in my head. I know my grandfather had it on VHS and I can see the cover perfectly, but I think it wasn’t till high school that I actually watched it. I know when I finally did watch it though, how could you not love it?

One of the biggest memories I have about this movie too is being very into the theme music. When I moved to college my friend and I had a contest on who could find and download the theme song first. I don’t really remember who won but I know for the rest of the year I had the song on my iPod and would listen to it a lot on the bus ride to classes.

Okay, this movie. I think watching this with Elizabeth was my fifth time watching it. I owned it on DVD in high school and would watch it fairly often. It was also one I let a lot of people borrow. Watching the film now, in a theater though, I don’t think I had really thought of all the humor in the film. There are a ton of emotions in the movie but it wasn’t till being around an audience that exploded with laughter at a good many number of scenes that I really thought of how many of the scenes have a light-hearted anecdote or quip.

I think what this movie does best is the solid writing. Every single scene has a purpose and reason to be in the movie. Watching bad movies so much really shows how directors/writers/people love having pointless scenes in movies. The very first time I remember watching a movie and knowing so many of the scenes were pointless, had nothing to do with the movie, was Teeth. I was so excited about the concept of the movie I was surprised how bad it was.

What is this post about again? Oh yea, The Third Man is great and you should totally watch it. It’s a very smooth film with everything (writing, directing, acting, cinematography, etc.) is on point. If you know nothing about the film, keep it that way and go see it now!

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One thought on “THE THIRD MAN (1949)

  1. The first time (and only time before this recent viewing) that I’d seen this I remember being underwhelmed. I think a lot of that had to do with the two main leads — Cotten and Valli, both of who seemed so flat and dated. And I didn’t really think all that much of the story, but that’s more, I think, because I’m not a fan of mysteries for their own sake, no matter how clever (and this one is quite clever).

    Still, on this second viewing, I’m surprised all that hid, for me, the greatness of its technical cinematic achievement. The shots are original and powerful and the director’s style is effective and unique. There’s a little bit of a “comic book” look to some of the shots that plays to the noir aspect very well, and the cinematographers use of lighting and composition — like in the sewer sequences, for example — are grand and charged. So, from a visual standpoint, it’s a paragon of the genre and a worthy study of just film in general.

    On the acting side, as I said, I was still left flat by Cotten and the female lead. Both seemed so dated and sort of cliche. I had seen Trevor Howard in Mutiny on the Bounty and didn’t care much for him. He played Bligh (the bad guy), so the character wasn’t sympathetic, but his portrayal just seemed so un-nuanced. Here, however, Howard steals his scenes in spades. He’s understated, natural, in the moment — an utter joy to watch. But even he is eclipsed by Welles. This might be the best I’ve seen him. He just commands the screen not so much in his “Welles” aura (though that’s always unavoidable), but in the same thing Howard achieved, but to something near perfection.

    Welles plays the bad guy, but he’s a person rather than a caricature. He’s calm and rational, obliviously chipper at times, but smart to a fault (clearly) and deceptively ego-maniacal. Welles just hits all the notes of both the character and the basic requirements of acting so often missed to varying degrees, of being natural, with the idea that there’s no notion that a camera is watching him.

    In short, I loved it this time around. Carol Reed directed a pillar of the genre (and the medium) and it has at least a couple of stellar performances. Narratively, I thought it was clever, but not spectacular, and executed spryly. In total, well deserving of its reputation and classification as a classic.

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