The Third Man

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #64: Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

3rdman.jpg With the likes of Carol Reed di­rect­ing, a Graham Greene screen­play and Orson Welles, The Third Man, [1949] which I re­cent­ly watched, is a very good movie. And since it was a Criterion Collection DVD, the good­ies are just as good.

The Third Man is clas­sic film noir, a tri­umph of black and white cin­e­matog­ra­phy and a palimpsest of post-war schiz­o­phre­nia that grew in­to post­mod­ern an­tag­o­nism. This makes me think that post-war and post­mod­ern might be used in­ter­change­ably. In any case, this film’s pro­tag­o­nist is a hack-writer named Holly Martins [Joseph Cotten], a heavy drinker and a bel­liger­ent American; am­bigu­ous at best, who has come to Vienna to find his friend Harry Lime [Welles] who, every­one says, was hit by a car.

Vienna at this time is split be­tween four coun­tries, France, Russia, Great Britain and the United States. Racketeering abounds, and black mar­ket trade is about the on­ly way to make a liv­ing. So Martins, who has an in­fu­ri­at­ing man­ner of de­lib­er­ate­ly mis­pro­nounc­ing everyone’s name, struts through Vienna as if, by right of his Americanity, the city should abase it­self be­fore him. He an­noys the shit out of me. The fe­male lead, Anna Schmidt [Alida Valli], isn’t re­al­ly a fem­me fa­tale at all. The sto­ry twists and turns and I’ll say no more about it.

The cin­e­matog­ra­phy pulls no punch­es. Dutch an­gles abound, al­most each scene has its own mon­ey shot, from deep-fo­cus shots from the top of a bridge, cav­ernous and labyrinthine sew­ers that play light every which way dur­ing a chase scene, cast shad­ows, cast light, this is a movie where black and white are en­gaged in just as much in­ter­play and sub­tle­ty as the city of Vienna it­self. The act­ing, though at times a bit ham­my, is al­so im­pres­sive in the amount of un­trans­lat­ed and pidg­in di­a­logue that must ex­ist in an German-speak­ing city oc­cu­pied by French, Russians, British and Americans.

My on­ly true prob­lem is with the edit­ing. There are sev­er­al dis­solve-mon­tages where a bunch of im­ages are meant to con­vey ad­vances in the plot. This made me at least have to re­view what I had just seen in or­der to make sense of where it fit in the film. What I’m say­ing is, the mon­tages did more to stop the plot than ad­vance it. Also, eye­line match­es and match­es on ac­tion were of­ten hic­coughy. This could very well not be the ed­i­tors fault, per­haps there was no footage ap­pro­pri­ate enough to merge seam­less­ly.

In clos­ing, the open­ing cred­its are the best I’ve ever seen in a film. A close-up of zither strings be­ing played in the back­ground as they roll. It was hyp­notic, mes­mer­iz­ing, and all that jazz. 

P.S. The Criterion trans­fer gives you col­or bars so that you can ad­just the bright­ness and con­trast for op­ti­mal view­ing.

Criterion Essay by Michael Wilmington.

One thought on “The Third Man

  1. The new 2 disc Criterion ver­sion of The Third Man is the best DVD I know of and own. The su­perb pack­ag­ing, the match­ing book of es­says, one of the best films ever, and bonus disc of the 2005 award win­ning doc­u­men­tary, the full one hour riv­et­ing in­ter­view with a trav­el­ing Graham Greene from 1968, the re­broad­cast of the Orson Welles ra­dio show, “A Ticket To Tangiers”, footage of post war Vienna and the sew­er po­lice in ac­tion, a de­light­ful trans­la­tion of all the for­eign di­a­logue from the film, and the Austrian half hour show from 2000 that catch­es up with the ac­tors, sto­ry, and who was the third man. Plus, back­ground pho­tos, rare footage, the unique mu­sic and sto­ry of how it all came about. I know about Citizen Kane and Casablanca be­ing the best movies known but they are flick­ers of flame to the burn­ing torch be­hind the eter­nal search and fas­ci­na­tion with the Third Man.

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