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Third Man, The (1950)

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Score: 10/10

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.

Release Date: February 2nd, 1950 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Carol Reed Actors: Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White

I

ts look, full of fedoras, trench coats, humidity, and umbras, is that of the archetypal film noir; its sound, featuring lighthearted, tropical zither music (practically Hawaiian at times and comical at others), popping up at regular intervals to announce shock, sudden perception, or changes in tone, couldn’t be further discordant from the moody black-and-white visuals. The score is one of the most original and notable elements of the movie, though not because of its appropriateness. Toward the suspenseful conclusion, however, the resonant notes begin to sink in and can be appreciated for their unusual, prominent narration. The cinematography is similarly legendary, basking rainy stone streets and cavernous buildings and sets with sparse light and grand shadows. Characters either emerge from darkness or disappear into it; contrastingly, no role is simply good or evil – the lines are as blurred as the shifty allegiances, motives, and sensibilities so regularly questioned.

Infamous black market racketeer Harry Lime (Orson Welles) offers Western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) a job in post-World War II Vienna. But when he arrives, Holly discovers from a neighbor that a truck in front of the building hit Lime. Martins is just in time to attend the funeral services, where English official Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) offers up a ride back to town and a drink at a pub. Inebriated and belligerent, Martins is knocked around by a sergeant and requested to leave the city the following morning. But he’s motivated to stay, chiefly out of resentment toward the bullying and a desire to get to the bottom of his friend’s death, and partly because Mr. Crabbin (Wilfrid Hyde-White) invites Holly to give a lecture on contemporary literature at the British Cultural Museum in exchange for accommodations at a hotel.

Holly receives a phone call from Austrian Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), whom he meets at the Mozart Café nearby, only to learn more information about Harry’s death – compounding on theories that don’t add up. Several witnesses all report different details and each one appears to have known the victim. Martins surmises that multiple people carried Lime’s body from the street, including Kurtz, the Romanian Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), and a third man – an ordinary looking adult that could have been anybody. But as Holly digs deeper, he questions whether or not the accident was a murder – all while being thwarted by attesters that don’t want to get mixed up in a police investigation.

Evidence is collected, but solid facts remain elusive. “The Third Man” is a mystery that is slowly unraveled as Holly interrogates everyone who knew the deceased – with continually dissatisfactory, deceitful results. It’s obvious that secrets are being purposely withheld, both from the lead character, whose point of view processes the story, and from the audience, asked to wait patiently as more and more minute components are added (such as Lime’s performer lover, the Czechoslovakian Anna Schmidt, played by Valli) to make the crime deviously complex. As a mystery, it is average – but as a darkly artistic approach to intrigue, it’s masterful. The whole ordeal culminates in the riveting revelation of a morbid scam, jurisdictional obstacles, incidental love, the value of money over lives, and the manner in which governments support the very ideas most repugnant to human decency. And then there’s the iconic sequences of an international manhunt in the sewer tunnels beneath the city, Welles’ famous Ferris wheel tirade, and a sensationally framed final shot – exemplifying that doing the right thing can be ultimately unfavorable.

– Mike Massie

 



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