Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The First Entry: The Third Man (Spoliers included. I discuss the ending! Beware!)

I thought I'd begin my blog by talking about what is considered to be a major classic in modern British cinema: Carol Reed's 1949 offbeat film
noir The Third Man starring Joesph Cotten and Orson Welles.

You almost can't check a critic's list of some of the most influential films ever made without coming across this film. With it's use of dutch angles, shadows, the utilization of post war Vienna and Anton Karas' distinctive theme music, The Third Man almost exists in a category of it's own.

This is one of those films I know I needed to see. An acquaintance of mine told me that the blu-ray edition of the film, recently released by Criterion, was going out of print and that he had one remaining copy left at the CD/DVD store he works at. He mentioned that he wanted the last copy to be bought by someone who'd appreciate it instead of using it as an opportunity to resell it for big bucks on ebay. I agreed to buy the movie knowing I'd enjoy it and sure enough after watching it at around three in the morning I was right. I realized that this is one of those movies where you connect the dots along modern films that have proceeded it and have "borrowed" it's style. If Joel and Ethan Coen were filmmakers in the 1940s, they probably would have made a film akin to The Third Man. This is film noir but not necessarily in the tradition of Bogart or Mitchum. It's film noir with a European flavor, with odd music and unpredictable storytelling. It's main character fits perfectly in it's milieu . Holly Martins (Cotten) is an American pulp fiction author who comes to Vienna to meet with his old school friend Harry Lime (Welles) Almost immediately after his arrival, he learns that Lime was killed after being struck by a car. He meets with Lime's shady associates who gives him contradictory details about his death. He meets and becomes friendly with Lime's old lover Anna (Alida Valli) He runs afoul of the local military brass headed by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who tries to convince Martins that Lime wasn't the most honorable fellow and that he was involved in a insulin racket on the black market. Confusion and paranoia begin to hover over Martins as he begins to discover the truth about the friend he really didn't know.

The paranoia and suspicion are the film's most evocative themes. They're amplified by the setting, the cold and dark streets of Vienna, full of mysterious and boisterous bystanders. Martins practically drowns in these people, ignorant of their customs and behavior and unable to understand their language. He stands out like a sore thumb as he wanders dumbfounded, acting as some sort of amateur private eye trying to figure out the real circumstances behind Lime's death, which later proves to be a disappearance. Major Calloway and his men hover behind him, demanding he take the first train out of Vienna and stop playing sleuth.

Harry Lime is a ominous character who exists in the first act of the movie like an unexorcised ghost. He's on the minds and mouths of the characters as if he's a force of nature. When Lime finally does materialize in the famous scene where Martins spots him standing across the street, hidden in a doorway, enshrouded in shadow with a smug smirk on his face, Martins shouts out to him and Lime flees and returns to wherever he's hidden, which is what he continues to do for the rest of the picture. Disappear and reappear when it is safe and necessary for him and then quickly disappear again like some sort of stubborn apparition.

One great scene where he emerges from his disappearing act to rendezvous with Martins is my favorite scene of the film. I had to re-watch it because I felt I didn't fully pay attention the first time. This scene is so perfectly acted and written and photographed. It's what's called the famous "cuckoo clock speech":

That scene is the only time Martins and Lime really have a long conversation and it's their only opportunity to play off each other: Martins, the naive, inquisitive protagonist who wants answers from his mysterious old friend, and Lime, the confident and arrogant mystery man who displays to the audience and Martins his heartlessness and ruthless and cynical nature. The dialogue is pitch perfect and I imagine is most likely exercised by drama students in acting classes.

The film then progress towards it's exciting and visually amazing climax set in the large and pungent sewers that Lime uses as his crafty getaway from the intrepid authorities and Martins, who is now allied with them to stop Lime.

The visual feast of that scene includes the triangular trap doors Lime quickly opens as he runs from the heat and enters down into the sewer. Spiral staircases, brick walls, long and dark tunnels, steel ladders and stairs that lead to more water soaked tunnels. What is supposed to be Harry Lime's crafty escape route leading to his "re-disappearance" only proves to be his trap and then after a quick and tense confrontation between Martins and Lime, it becomes his grave. This is one hell of a cinematic set piece. An on-foot chase scene that can put many generic and by the book car chases in many of today's action movies to shame.

The Third Man probably looks and plays better today than in did in 1949. The wonderful B&W cinematography by Robert Krasker compliments the film and it really gives it character in addition to Carol Reed's sure handed direction. This is what they call essential viewing.

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