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Film Review No.136: The Third Man


If you go back a few pages you’ll see that I reviewed a 15 hour long documentary called The Story Of Film a short while ago. Whilst watching that film I came to the realisation that there’s an awful lot of classic films I really should have seen by now, and chief among them was The Third Man. So no sooner had I finished watching The Story Of Film I was on Lovefilm adding a bunch of classical cinema treats to my rental list which shall hopefully be getting reviewed by me sooner rather than later. It’s a proverbial bucket list of movies including films such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. One day I might even get around to watching the biggest film I have never seen, The Godfather. Yup, never seen it. I’m a bad person. Anyway, today I’m covering Carol Reed’s The Third Man. I might even delve into my classic films I already own at some point. Got a copies of Double Indemnity and Chinatown just daring me to review them. For now, click the link this particular classic film review!

The Third Man is a story that’s been told many times over since it’s original release in 1949. It follows a pulp Western novel writer called Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) as he arrives in post-war Vienna on the promise of work to be given by his long time friend Harry Lime (Orson “Unicron” Welles). When he arrives and finds his friend has recently died Holly is at a loss. When he starts to believe that his friends death may not be as simple as it originally appeared he decides to stay in Vienna and investigate, much to the chagrin of Harry’s friends and the local law officers. To say this film is influential is a great understatement. The story itself has been mirrored multiple times and the films final shot was even visually echoed in Taxi Driver. I’m not sure if we should credit it’s use of Dutch angles as an influence on the 60s Batman TV series and Battlefield Earth though.

A shot mimicked in many films. Even Ghostbusters.

Back in the 40s crime thrillers and Film Noir where ten-a-penny. They largely came from Warner Bros who would produce them as the antithesis to the romantic Hollywood films of the time. A few came from Britain though, and The Third Man is one of them. Quite surprising considering it has Orson Welles as one of it’s biggest stars. Although there is room for some British talent such as Trevor Howard as the Major Calloway. The cast really is superb overall here. Their performances a little more skewed towards naturalism which wasn’t often the case at the time. Joseph Cotton holds the film well with his portrayal of a man who’s maybe not at the peak of his life and is trying to find something to prove that the one good thing he had, his friendship with Harry, wasn’t a lie. See Harry has been accused of being a black market tradesman selling various illegal substances to profit off the poor. Holly desperately wants to prove that Harry wasn’t that bad guy the local police have him labelled as, but is Holly prepared for the truth.

As the film progresses the webs of lies and intrigue get more and more tangled. This is one of the earliest films to really play with the audiences expectations of how a thriller should play out. Especially on such a complexly woven manner. It is also one of those great films that almost openly encourages the audience to piece everything together themselves. The whole time there’s the shadow of seeing Orson Welles name on the title credits and realising 40 minutes in that he still hasn’t appeared. It plays on your mind knowing that he plays Harry Lime but wondering how he could fit in seeing as he’s dead before Holly even arrives in Vienna. Nowadays the reveal of his characters appearance in the story may come off as a little predictable due to the amount of films that have pulled off similar reveals since. What matters is just how masterfully that reveal is handled.

Here’s a shot you’ll recognise as being copied in The Fugitive. KIMBLE!!!

Carol Reed shot the film as a dark, gritty thriller. It feels like one of Holly Martin’s pulp novels coming to life. An element that’s even covered in the film. Reed uses a lot of run down locations, dark alleyways and even a trip into the sewers to show just how mired in dirt Harry Lime managed too get his life. I think this is actually one of the first films to even show a sewer. There’s a lot of deep focus shots, clearly influenced in part by Orson Welles’ own Citizen Kane. He also loves him some Dutch angles, especially on close-ups. A trait that proved so contentious in the day that a fellow director and friend of Carol Reed called William Wyler (director of Ben-Hur, Mrs Miniver and Funny Girl amongst others) sent him a spirit level in the post with a card that read “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?”. Peer mocking aside the Dutch angles are key to the style of the film. They show to us a world that’s off the centre and not quite as straight laced as the world we know. It’s like the shot is telling you something is not quite right here.

The films theme music is also worth a mention. It’s one of those pieces (Which I’ll post a link to after this paragraph) that you’ll know the moment you hear it but may not be sure where it came from. Obviously if you remember that it is called The Third Man Theme then you should hopefully be able to connect the dots. It’s a unique piece of music played entirely on a Zither and manages to be both light and dark at the same time. Never quite fitting the scene in the way a traditional score would but always playing to elements of it and keep the audience enthralled. When it plays it peaks your attention and lets you know important stuff is about to happen.

The Third Man is generally considered a masterpiece and any issues viewers today may take with it’s tropes can only be assigned to the familiarity those story elements have taken on by being copied in other directors work since. This film itself has been cited as an influence on Orson Welles own A Touch Of Evil. Even with the familiarity of it’s story telling techniques it still holds up as a great work of cinema from a golden era of Hollywood thrillers. Highly recommended for film lovers and a must for anyone that fancies themselves as a cinematic photographer.

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About lvl54spacemonkey

Just a dude who likes movies and games and has delusions of working in one of those industries. Write screenplays and work on short films in my spare time. Most of which never get finished. View all posts by lvl54spacemonkey

2 responses to “Film Review No.136: The Third Man

  • TheBruce

    It’s amazing how these days pretty much every Hollywood film looks and feels the same. And yet black-and-white films, like film noir, were able to convey such an incredible about visual style. Great movie. I love Lime’s reveal scene, always sticks fresh in my mind, even after all this time. Hell, a lot of the movie is like that.

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