Tuesday, 29 March 2016
Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)
Vienna after the war is divided into five sectors. Each of the French, British, Americans and Russians control one, while the the centre of the city is the international sector, with the four countries running hopelessly inept joint police patrols. It is here that all the criminals have congregated to run the assorted dangerous rackets that flourish in a devastated city. American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a little-known writer of bad pulp westerns, arrives in the city at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find out that Lime has just died in an accident after being run over by a truck.
Martins meets British police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his assistant Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), and they are keenly interested in any friends of Lime. Martins also gets involved with the cryptic Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime's former lover. But more intriguing is the collection of Lime's former associates, including "Baron" Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto) and the Romanian Popescu (Siegfried Breuer). In addition to the coincidence of all having being present when Lime died, they appear friendly and keen to meet Martins, and just as eager to see him leave town.
Written by Graham Greene and directed with panache by Reed, almost every frame of The Third Man is a piece of art. Making outstanding use of film noir techniques including oblique angles, enormous shadows, acute light, reflective surfaces and stark blacks and whites, Reed and his cinematographer Robert Krasker create a world unhinged by the aftereffects of war, occupied by desperate men profiting from a vacuum of civil order and the slow creep of anarchy. Almost everything important appears to happen in the dark hours, Vienna at night the playground of the twisted and evil.
Martins: [on the Ferris wheel] Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. [gestures to people far below] Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.
As for the plot, it is sturdy enough to compete with all the dramatic style on display. A classic investigation into a dense mystery by an unwelcome outsider, it is evident early on that nothing about Harry Lime's death is routine. It is equally clear that not much good will come from Holly Martins' well-intentioned but ultimately misguided search for a better truth. Before long a bad situation is just getting worse thanks to his meddling, Anna landing in trouble with the Russians, another dead body landing on the Vienna streets, and Martins fingered as a suspect and on the run from both an unruly mob and more clinical goons. It's a cat and mouse game in the half abandoned back alleys of a wounded city, and Martins is never sure until it's too late whether he is the hunter or the hunted.
Harry, speaking to Martins: Oh Holly, what fools we are, talking to each other this way. As though I would do anything to you, or you to me. You're just mixed up about things in general. Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs - it's the same thing. They have their five-year plans, so have I.
Harry, speaking to Martins: You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.
The Third Man ends brilliantly, with an exquisitely framed encounter that doesn't happen, full of words that aren't spoken, and the tantalizing promise of a better life that is not fulfilled. The war may have ended, but for many the misery will continue.
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