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.