Tuesday 29 March 2016

Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)

A missing man murder mystery set in post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a masterpiece of ambiance. Director Carol Reed creates a world of intrigue populated by men and women hiding secrets, and captures it all with stunning visuals filled with uneasy shadows and glistening surfaces.

Vienna after the war is divided into five sectors. Each of the French, British, Americans and Russians control one, while the centre of the city is the international sector, where the four countries run 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 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.

In talking with Lime's porter (Paul Hörbiger), Martins discovers inconsistencies in the narrative about Lime's death, including the possibility that a "third man", in addition to Kurtz and Popescu, helped carry Lime after he was struck by the lorry. Martins is drawn to the troubled Anna but out of his depth investigating the death of his friend. Another man dies and Martins himself is now a suspect, before the truth gets further entangled in a growing web of deceit.

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.

For a story set in the land of Mozart, Strauss, Haydn and Schubert, Reed goes looking for a unique music score and veers sharply away from anything resembling convention. Composed by the unknown-at-the-time Anton Karas, the music consists of simple, rural tunes played by Karas himself on the zither. The music adds enormously to the sense of a world gone halfway insane, and is a timeless, playful and instantly recognizable accompaniment to the dazzling visuals.

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.

And then there is Orson Welles. Appearing for less than 20 minutes of screen time, Welles turns a glorified cameo into an unforgettable experience. His lines of dialogue have entered movie folklore, and his searing, beady-eyed and ruthless intensity leaves an indelible impact. Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee and Alida Valli are steady, but once Welles appears he dominates with effortless composure, and the film becomes about a man controlling the strings while hiding in the literal and figurative shadows.

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.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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