Film Flick: The Third Man

Friday, May 17, 2013


"Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed's 'The Third Man'?" Roger Ebert asked in his review of this iconic and classic film nior. Indeed, the unique score manages to perfectly convey a sense of place and mood. It is manic yet joyless; it is ethnic yet never gives way to a cartoony stereotype of Austria. Combine this with the film's harsh, expressionistic lighting and the unusual camera angles that serve to keep the viewer feeling off balance and you would be hard pressed to find a more perfectly-suited film where technical aspects are concerned (though some did joke about the extreme titling "Dutch" Angles. Friend and fellow director William Wyler sent Reed a level with the instruction to put it on top of the camera for his next film).  Like the previously discussed  Double  Indemnity  and  The Maltese Falcon , this film has the trademarks of a noir beyond just the shadowy lighting. It has seedy characters and locales; an anti-hero protagonist; a femme fatale; and murder too. 

Holly Reeds has recently arrived in Vienna to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime. "I never knew the old  Vienna ," he tells us in the opening narration. The post-WWII Vienna is portrayed as a bombed out city filled with people trying to keep their heads down- a political mess where corruption can flourish (It should be noted the film was shot entirely on location; the rubble and  devastation  is real. This maybe partly why the film got only a luke-warm reception by Austrian critics). On arrival though, Reed quickly discovers that Lime has died-reportedly run over by a car-only a few days earlier. In fact, he manages to make it to Lime's funeral. Seeing what he  perceives  to be indifference on the police's part, Reed starts looking at the  possibility  of murder. In doing so, he is dragged into a world where nothing is as it seems in his quest to find the third man who was present the night of the hit and run.

Like other Noir films, the people and situations portrayed on screen are dark; however, this film seems all the more chiling in how very realistic and unique those situations are. Told in those first post-war years (just as the paranoria that would characterize much of the Cold War was setting in) by men who had been in the war, and set and filmed in that rubble of a city, it conveys a sense of  dichotomies   Holly Reeds' the American and Western writer who envisions the world with morals that would not be out of place in one of his novels. Contrasted against him are the jaded police and wary people he meets. For them, there is no ticket out of Vienna; there is survival and, for a very few lucky, there might be love. Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles act this out brilliantly. Plus, you will not want to miss one of cinema's most famous speeches, supposedly written on the spot by Welles himself. Roger Ebert also wrote that he envied anyone who would be watching this for the first time, and I echo that sentiment. You will need to see it to  believe  it- find out  identity  of The Third Man.

1 comment

  1. I saw The Third Man for the first time last year and it quickly became one of my favourite films, and you're right that the iconic score fits perfectly, especially set in post-war Vienna with it's sharp angles and looming shadows. Everything just feels a bit off which is perfect as we feel just the same as Holly venturing in for the first time.

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