Criterion Project #38: THE THIRD MAN (1949)

The Third Man

Spine #64

Year: 1949

Director: Carol Reed

I couldn’t think of a better film to write about this week than The Third Man. I’ve got a very hectic time coming up with multiple projects plus some traveling going on, so I needed something that could push through the stress and put a smile on my face. So very few films get a perfect grade in my eyes, but this is unquestionably one of them.

This will be a brief article but the story is essentially as follows: a chronic drinker and occasional writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), arrives in post-war Vienna with the promise of work with his good friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But when he learns of the suspicious details of Harry’s death he finds himself caught up in a nefarious plot in an unforgiving country rife with criminals.

Without giving away too much, that’s the set-up. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of The Third Man is the zither score. The jaunty tune transports my memory back to when I first saw the film and I knew I’d seen something special. I’ve read in certain circles that some people can’t take the movie seriously because of the music, but I can’t think of the title of the film without conjuring the theme and it immediately puts a smile on my face. There’s a possibility I might claim anywhere from 10-15 titles in this project as residing in my top 5 films of all-time. If there is any one film that I’m not hyperbolically inflating its status, it’s this one.

For me, every scene is perfection: Holly Martins’ first meeting with Major Callaway (“Callaghan”), every scene with the gorgeous Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Mr. Popescu’s thugs’ pursuit of Holly, the iconic reveal of a certain character, “cuckoo clock”, and the incredible finale in the underground tunnels of Vienna. Every moment has a reason for being in the film, whether to progress the story or enrich a character’s backstory and motivation.

It really is the classic film noir tale of a determined protagonist with the tools to uncover a mystery that will undoubtedly prove to be much more than they ever bargained for. Holly Martins, for all his loyalty, earnestness and desire to prove the authorities wrong in the name of his friends, is the quintessential noir schlub. Even in his own craft as a writer he’s barely recognized despite publishing several books, albeit mostly westerns. Part of the reason he’s able to stay in Vienna to investigate his friend’s unexpected demise is through the charity of a British aristocrat who mistakes him for an established author and is unaware he’s a pulp novel writer. The gag is humorously played until it reaches a crest when Holly is requested to give a lecture on the modern novel, which he stammers through, completely unprepared and unfamiliar with the tastes of the aristocratic intelligentsia in attendance.

But instead of just being a humorous bit, it culminates with a thrilling chase through the bombed out streets and dark alleys of Vienna, which is every bit a character as Martins or Harry Lime. The state of the city plays a major role in the construction of the mystery, as we’re told up front that it has been divided into 4 quadrants, each governed by a different set of laws for different nationalities. The city is fractured and hollow in many places, which is demonstrated in the darkened alleys at night where the thud of fleeing shoes on the cobblestone crashes like bombs in the empty streets. Director Carol Reed takes special care to keep Vienna as a central character so as to reinforce the theme that nothing is what it appears to be. The once great city is rife with rubble and holes from the destruction of war that gave way to the criminal opportunities that drive the plot of the film. In classic noir tradition, the further Holly digs the more he realizes he doesn’t know.

At every turn he’s met with strangers who speak languages he’s unfamiliar with, which only fortifies the idea that, as clever as he thinks he is, this is a world he couldn’t possibly understand. It’s only through friendship with the woman closest to his reposed friend that he gains any sort of footing in the mystery. Of course, no film noir is complete without a femme fatale. These skewed relations are perfectly visualized with frequent use of canted camera angles and jagged corners of the city. I’d go so far as to say there’s barely a right angle in the entire film, both visually and narratively. And they’re not just stylistic choices. They create a feeling within the image that instills an unease. The film is trying to tell you what everyone is trying to tell Martins at nearly every turn – you don’t know the whole story. And without getting into details, it’s a pitch black reality waiting for Holly when his eyes open to reality.

I’m going to talk some **SPOILERS** before I wrap up here.

What could I possibly say about the great Orson Welles that hasn’t been said before? His reveal in the pitch black doorway is my absolute favorite character reveal in the history of cinema. He does more with a single boyish expression than most actors could do with their whole body. I could replay that moment over and over again and never get tired of the whimsy in his face at being discovered by his friend. And the scene on the ferris wheel runs the gamut of his characters’ mentalities, from youthful vigor to murderous intensity. And it all occurs in the span of a few minutes, culminating with the aforementioned legendary “cuckoo clock” monologue. There isn’t an actor on the planet that could play those attributes and endear himself to the viewer better than Orson Welles.

There’s no way for me to give this film the praise it deserves. The way I feel about it is beyond my writing abilities. I watch it at least once a year and every time there’s something new I find, and even if it’s something inconsequential, it adds to the richness of the experience. I simply can’t find the words for it. Without question, one of the very best films ever made.

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