Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The First is everything but, let's start with the Third.

The first is always the hardest.

I wasn't sure which film to review this week. It had to be a masterpiece but, not as well known. At the same time, the movie could not be so obscure that it would be impossible to find. This is, after all, the first impression you will have of me and my taste in movies. The first impression is a lasting one. The first is everything.

The perfect choice came to me last night. Both brilliant and little known to many. I can't think of a better place to begin than a post-war Vienna, shrouded in paranoia and mystery. It is one of the greatest films to ever grace the screen and yet, many people have never seen it. The movie that I am referring to is Carol Reed's tour de force, The Third Man.

The Third Man is a typical film-noir elevated to perfection by every aspect of its production team. The script, by Graham Greene, hooks the audience from the very first line: "I never knew the old Vienna, before the war...". These words come from a man named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a pulp-Western writer who has been invited to Vienna by an old college friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). The story takes a turn very early when Martins learns that his friend died shortly before his arrival. What happened? It is this very question that propels the film towards one shocking discovery after another.

Martins almost immediately begins an inquiry into Lime's untimely death. He first seeks out a British officer named Calloway (Trevor Howard). Calloway gives an ambiguous discourse about the evils of Harry Lime and cautions him to leave Vienna at once. Martins chooses to disregard the warning and instead seeks out a woman he saw at Lime's funeral. The woman is Lime's old love interest, Anna Schmidt (Allida Valli). Certainly she can shed some light on the mystery surrounding Lime.

What makes The Third Man such a genius work of film is the way this simple set-up is executed. The first thing the audience will notice is the music. The entire score is performed by Anton Karas on an instrument called a zither. At first it sounds very upbeat but, listen carefully and you will hear the dark undertones that serve as a bleak reminder that nothing is what it seems in Vienna. (Reed actually heard Karas playing in a bar one night and thought he would be perfect for the film. He was right on every level.)

Robert Krasker's beautiful black-and-white cinematography is another element that grabs the audience and refuses to let go. The high walls of the city mixed with an interesting lighting scheme begins to make Vienna feel like something out of an Escher drawing. Also, watch closely and you will see that many of the shots are tilted, rather than held straight, suggesting that something is askew in the city. (I have always thought that this unique camera angle was an idea borrowed from Welles' Citizen Kane).One of the most superb shots takes place towards the end of the film. A chase scene in a sewer takes full advantage of the claustrophobia we begin to feel as a main character tries to escape the labyrinth of tunnel workings under Vienna.

**The rest of the review gives away a twist in the plot. However, if you have seen the cover of the DVD or any poster for this film, you already know what I'm referring to here.**

As wonderful as all of these elements are, it is truly the tension building up to the discovery of Harry Lime that makes this film so wonderful. I'm not sure there has ever been a better introduction of a character than the entrance of Orson Welles as Lime. The way the lighting shadows all but a pair of feet, the sound of the cat meowing to draw out attention, every small detail pulls us in further until we finally see Lime's wry grin emerge from the darkness. Reed paces the scene with such patient precision. He lets the audience lean forward and see through the confused eyes of Martins, even though we all know what comes next, we still can't say for sure. This is the mark of a brilliant director.

Welles is only in the last forty minutes of the film but his character is usually the most remembered from The Third Man. Lime is such a complex villain. He charms us and at the same time we are repulsed by him. Consider the famous "cuckoo clock" speech on the ferris wheel. We hang off of every word he says and, at the same time, are horrified by the conclusion it draws. Watch closely during this scene and you will be able to see just how frightened Martins has become of his old friend. When Lime opens the door of the cart on the ferris wheel, watch as Martins anxiously loops his arm around one of the poles.

I will not spoil the ending but, I will say that it is one of the greatest of all films. Reed actually argued with both the producer (David O. Selznick) and Graham Greene about the original ending of the script. Eventually Reed convinced them that his vision for the ending was much better. The ending is not only better, without it this would not be the classic that it is today. The ending is a work of genius.

The Third Man has been regarded, by many, as one of the greatest films of all time. It was Carol Reed's finest directorial achievement and one of Orson Welles' most iconic roles. The music, cinematography, direction and acting are flawless.

It is a masterpiece.

So, what should you be watching this Friday?
The Third Man


  1. Great place to start! I'll have the Harry Lime theme in my head all day now, but that's ok! Good review and glad to see it wasn't Avatar (nothing against it, it's just everywhere at the moment)

  2. hmmm ive never seen it, but since ive always wanted to see a noir film, and you speak so highly if this one, i have to see it!

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  4. Nice writing. :) I will definitely have to see this. Check out my little corner of the blog universe, sometime.
    Have fun with your blog. I know I am.

  5. Damn straight! This is perhaps the best technical noir ever made. It's not my favorite noir by a long shot--not even my favorite noir featuring Orson Welles (that would be Touch of Evil, but this is shot-for-shot one of the best technical pieces ever done in any genre.