Monday, September 20, 2010

The Third Man: 3/5


The Third Man (1949) is my first exposure to Carol Reed and my second to the Joseph Cotten/Orson Welles duo.  Graham Greene wrote the screenplay (and simultaneously released novelette).  The basic premise is that Holly Martins (Cotten) reports to work in post-war Vienna only to find that his best friend and employer, Harry Lime (Welles), has been run over by a truck in front of his house.  But something is amiss in Vienna, and Holly, a penniless Western pulp writer, tries to play sleuth and figure it out.  Along the way, he kills his best friend and tries to steal his girl.  He fails, so he ends up penniless and friendless.  But he has the esteem of the British government, so that's nice.

Three Up

1.  The best part of the movie is its ending.  Holly lures Harry into a trap, helps chase him into the sewers, and eventually fires the shot that kills him.  After Harry's second funeral (a nice bookend), Holly and Major Calloway drive past Harry's girl Anna (Alida Valli) walking back to the city.  Holly gets out and waits for Anna.  He's ready to inherit Harry's girl, but she walks right past him without even a sideways glance.

Why is that so awesome?  Well, it suggests an answer to the film's central question: whether it is OK to kill one person so thousands may live.  Reed doesn't tell us.  Instead, he reminds us that, either way, there are consequences.  Society's anonymous and short-lived appreciation but the condemnation of your friends and loved ones, or the opposite.

And second, it suggests a difference between men and women, Americans and Eastern Europeans.  Men and Americans stereotypically view the world romantically, while women and Eastern Europeans stereotypically view the world pragmatically.  Anna doesn't embrace Holly as the hero who saved countless children's lives; she rejects him as the bastard who trapped and killed the love of her life.  And it is beautiful.

2.  The unusual soundtrack is great.  Anton Karas composed and performed the soundtrack on a zither, a native Austrian instrument.  Sometimes, the jangly upbeat music jars with the noirish atmosphere, but it belongs to the scene.  I also liked all the untranslated speaking in German.  Not only do we see weird visuals, but we hear unfamiliar sounds.  The cumulative effect is to help put us in Holly's shoes: we, too, are strangers in a strange land who (literally) don't know where to turn.

3.  Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is a great, great character.  I know that Harry Lime is probably the most famous character from this movie (and even had his own radio show spin-off), but I preferred Major Calloway.  He personifies the romantic pragmatism of the British so perfectly.  Most movies that deal with the conflict of romanticism and pragmatism present one side as obviously right and the other as obviously wrong.  Without Howard's suave performance as the British major trying to make Vienna safe for children, this movie would fall into the same trap.

Three Down

1.  Meaningless name mix-ups.  Holly kept calling Calloway "Callahan."  Anna kept calling Holly "Harry."  And Holly kept pronouncing Dr. Winkel's name wrong (with an American W instead of an Austrian V).  As far as I can tell, these three don't do anything more than (a) show Holly's disregard for Calloway, (b) show that Anna still loves Harry, and (c) show Holly's stereotypical American ignorance.  Faux symbolism annoys me, but accidental symbolism is even worse.  Graham Greene and Carol Reed are professionals.  They should have known the value of names and done something with it.  They should have known that doing it three times makes me think it's worth something.

2.  Some people love the almost constant Dutch angle.  I don't.  I get the artistic choice, but I don't dig it.  That's all I got on that one.

3.  I realize this is a classic film noir, but there was a little too much noir for my taste.  I dig the deep blacks of film as much as anybody, but it annoys me when I can't figure out what's going on (not metaphysically; I mean I literally couldn't tell what was on my screen at some points).  Blame it on my TV, blame it on Netflix Instant Queue, blame it on the bossanova, but I don't like it.

Closing Statement

The Third Man is regarded as a film noir classic.  It's # 65 on IMDb and # 534 on FlickChart.  The AFI ranked Harry Lime # 37 in its list of the top 100 villains in cinema, the movie # 57 on its first list of top 100 movies, # 75 on its list of top 100 thrills, and the # 5 mystery in its 10 Top 10 list.  The BFI called it the greatest British film of all time (at least through 1999).  There are probably other accolades to recommend it; you don't need mine.

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