Saturday, May 3, 2008

Repeat Viewing: The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

TSPDT placing: #23
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Graham Greene (story, screenplay), Alexander Korda (story, uncredited), Carol Reed (uncredited)
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

They call it film noir. But to do so would imply that the film adheres closely to the stylistic and thematic rules of its predecessors, when, put simply, there's never been anything quite like The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed's post-War masterpiece differs from traditional noir in that it is a distinctly British production, equipped with a wry, almost whimsical, sense of humour that places it alongside the Ealing films of the era, particularly Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Set in post-WWII Vienna, the film depicts a crumbling community of wretched thieves and black-market racketeers, effectively capturing the decadence and corruption of a city that has been brought to its knees. Instantly recognisable through Robert Krasker's harsh lighting and oblique, distorted cinematography, as well as Anton Karas' unique and unforgettable soundtrack – performed on a peculiar musical instrument called a zither – The Third Man is one of the most invigorating cinema experiences to which one may be treated.

Into the rubble-strewn ruins of Vienna comes an American pulp-novelist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who arrives, without a dime in his pocket, in search of an old friend named Harry Lime. However, upon his arrival, Martins is horrified to to learn of Lime's tragic death in a traffic accident. Unsatsified with the explanations he receives from the authorities and witnesses, he teams up with Lime's ex-girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Aldi Valli) to solve the mystery of his best friend's death. Was it an accident? Was it murder? Who was the "third man" who was seen carrying Lime to the roadside? Of course, as you and I both know, Martins' childhood friend, having faked his own death, is very much alive, and intent on keeping his continued existence quiet. The extraordinary moment, when Harry Lime's face is abruptly illuminated in a doorway, as a cat affectionately nuzzles his shoes, hardly comes as a surprise after fifty years, but the magic is very much still there.
Orson Welles' amused boyish smirk, wryly taunting Martins across the roadway, signals the entrance of one of cinema's most charismatic supporting characters. Despite being absent for the first half of the film, Lime's presence is felt throughout, his darkened shadow continually towering over Martins as he seeks to ascertain the actual cause of his friend's death. Lime is a perfect example of cinema's anti-hero, a vibrant, likable and identifiable personality who commits atrocities that should immediately warrant our detestation. Graham Greene's brisk and intelligent screenplay gives Lime all the best lines, particularly on the Ferris Wheel ride when he muses on the value of those inconsequential "little dots" walking below, though Welles himself takes credit for penning the celebrated "cuckoo clock" monologue; a rapidly-delivered acknowledgment of the creativity born from "warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed." Though Welles justifiably receives a lot of the praise, every other cast member delivers a wonderful performance, particularly Cotten as the bemused and morally-conflicted foreigner, Valli as Lime's steadfast lifelong disciple, and Trevor Howard as the Major who very much wishes that Lime had remained underground.

Director Carol Reed famously clashed with producer David O. Selznick over various facets of the film's production, with Selznick insisting on pivotal casting decisions, and allegedly suggesting that the film be titled "Night Time in Vienna." However, in the case of the suitably downbeat ending, both producer and director saw eye-to-eye, and Greene's original optimistic conclusion (in which Holly and Anna reconcile) was shelved in favour of the wonderful static long-shot, in which Martins is completely ignored by the women whose trust he is perceived to have broken. The Third Man, perhaps as a result of these contradictory artistic influences, has acquired, like no other film I've seen, a distinct personality of its own. Karas' zither soundtrack, as though consciously flouting traditional noir conventions, adds an element of whimsy to the proceedings, and somehow complements perfectly the larger-than-life distortion of Krasker's photography, in which ordinary human shadows tower three storeys in height, and even the most commonplace of interactions takes on the warped dimensions of a drug-induced dream. In Vienna, the truth can be as elusive as a ghost.

Currently my #1 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
3) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
4) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
5) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)


ressot3 said...

Hell yes! One of the bestest movies ever. I adore Lime's intro. I adore it.

ressot3 said...

Oh yeah, and I have some shameless self promotion that really has no place being here. I started a movie blog of my own:

Unrelated to tspdt, though.

ackatsis said...

Ah, very classy-looking blog!
That Herzog review has piqued my interest. Where did you manage to see it?

ressot3 said...

Local film center is having a Herzog retrospective all month: