The First Time Watching ‘The Third Man’

Photo: Criterion Collection

It’s been a while since I turned in a Cinematic Revival piece and that is primarily due to the fact that I found another way to discuss Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (see article here) and after watching Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets I really didn’t have anything to say, it didn’t interest me one way or another even though I certainly didn’t hate it. Harvey Keitel is the best I have ever seen him in that film. I haven’t seen a lot of Harvey’s earlier pictures outside of Taxi Driver, and come to think of it, I haven’t seen any of Harvey’s work prior to Thelma and Louise except for Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. Perhaps that is something I should remedy considering young Keitel is certainly better than old Keitel, much like his Mean Streets co-star Robert De Niro, who turns in a good performance in the film as well. For some reason, the picture just didn’t interest me and this paragraph is really all I care to discuss about it, unless you want me to go into the idea for a kick ass sequel taking place 35 years later… Nah…

While those films didn’t make it into the esteemed collection that is the Cinematic Revival one film is certainly worthy, and that is Carol Reed’s The Third Man from 1949 starring Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli and Orson Welles. I had this film in my queue already, but it was a comment our very own David Frank made to me (I think it was in an email) saying how this film was one of his favorites. Respecting David’s opinion on movies, even though he likes the Star Wars prequels, I bumped it up and gave it a watch.

Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins
Photo: Criterion Collection

The Third Man follows American writer Holly Martins (Cotten) as he arrives in war-torn Vienna at the request of his college buddy Harry Lime (Welles), who says he has a job for him. Unfortunately, upon Martins’ arrival he learns that Lime has been struck by a car and killed; his funeral is underway just down the street. Equipped with shady details, in touch with the unsympathetic British police officer Calloway (Howard) and equipped with a rather ignorant view of the world, Martins turns the investigation of his friend’s death into one of his cheap dime store novels and goes all “Murder She Wrote” in the streets of Vienna. At one point in the film Martins even describes his relationship with Lime to which Calloway replies, “That sounds like a cheap novelette.”

“Well, I write cheap novelettes,” is his reply.

The beauty in this story is Anna played by Alida Valli. Saved by Lime by forging her papers she will always be in love with the character we soon learn has been watering down penicillin. Anna doesn’t care, but considering the state of society in postwar Vienna the effect of Lime’s actions are felt immediately, but it remains one of my sore points on the film, but more on that in a bit.

During his “investigation” Martins soon learns about a supposed “third man” at the scene of Lime’s death. This was not in the original police report and he runs with it as any amateur sleuth would. Respect is not something you would associate with Martins, as he is used at every turn and simply a means to an end for all involved. It’s actually a very interesting dynamic considering Calloway wasn’t interested in finding out any more about Lime’s death. To Calloway, Lime was a bad man and his death was for the best. Who cared how it happened? However, even though he urged Martins to go home, he was never unwilling to take any information Martins offered in conjunction with Lime. Sure, he sloughed it off the majority of the time, but when it proved to be legit he ran with it and wasn’t afraid to use Martins to his advantage even if it meant putting him in harm’s way.

Martins’ lust for the romantic side of things (getting the girl and to the bottom of the mystery) blinded him from the reality of his situation. His much loved friend Harry Lime was actually an ass, placing money above the lives of others and Anna wouldn’t ever love him no matter what he did for her. That second fact ultimately plays into this film being a tragedy rather than a mystery worthy of any real thrills.

Personally, I didn’t think this film was all that great, at least not in terms of story. The pacing is poor and there never seems to be much of a mystery to Lime’s death. The first 60 minutes are actually quite boring as Martins trounces around Vienna adding nothing of any real consequence that couldn’t have been solved in a few lines of dialogue. The worst of it, Lime isn’t really as evil as he is made out to be. At least not at first.

Remaining hidden for over an hour of the film’s 105 minute running time I would have liked this film much more if Lime’s death had not only been more believable, but if the life he led had actually been more wicked. Sure, the scene with all the kids dying due to Lime’s penicillin scam is a downer, but prior to Lime’s appearance on screen all we know is that Lime watered down what was already a depleted supply of penicillin to make some money. It isn’t until 20 minutes after we learn Lime is still alive that we find out what an evil man he really is. This makes the final 25 minutes of the film very good, but it does nothing for the first 60.

“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”
Photo: Criterion Collection

Welles reads his much talked about mid-film speech as he and Martins spin high above the ground on a Ferris wheel, referring to the people below (enhanced by the long shadows they cast) as “little dots.” Lime asks Martins how many “dots” he would stop if he were to get £20,000 per? (“Free of income tax, the only way you can save money nowadays”) It’s a vicious question and we learn the true nature of the beast that is Harry Lime in this scene. I only wish we had learned it earlier so when he first appears in that darkened doorway it would have felt like seeing the devil himself for the first time rather than like seeing simple a huckster that has been bilking the sick out of their precious penicillin.

This speech, however, leads us into the true nature of this film and gets us to the good stuff.

Once I finished watching the film I shot David a text:

Me: Didn’t you say The Third Man was one of your favorites?

David [a man of many words]: Yep

Me: Any specific reasons, or just overall?

David: Overall, but especially cinematography and Orson “Muthafuckin'” Welles!

I don’t agree with the “Overall”, but he hits it on the head with the cinematography and the Orson Welles part. Welles is fantastic as Lime. He’s menacing and Welles’s nonchalant and cavalier attitude gives Lime that much more of a presence. I would say, had Noel Coward been cast as Lime, which is what producer David O. Selznick wanted, I am not sure I would have liked this film in the slightest. Welles’s performance is certainly unique and while Coward may have been able to bring his own menace to the role, I don’t think it would have been the same.

Photo: Criterion Collection

After Welles, it’s the cinematography, and this is something that dominates the entire feature. Peter Bogdanovich has an introduction on the Criterion Collection version of the film and when he says one of the great things about the film is its “extraordinary black and white photography, you can feel the wetness in the stones of Vienna,” he couldn’t have said it any better. Just look at that picture above and get a sense of how fantastic the photography in this film is. The darkness that surrounds the scene and silhouettes the figure in the frame. The bright light bouncing off the wet stones of the sewers of Vienna during the film’s final chase scene. It really is beautiful and plenty more examples can be found using the gallery attached to the bottom of this article. Be sure to especially check out the eleventh image (teased just below) as Lime is caught in the light of his pursuers. An iconic image if there ever was one.

Photo: Criterion Collection

Even though I didn’t exactly care for this film on a whole, it is a lot like other classics in that there certainly are things to take away from it and remember. A film like The Third Man is better than 99% of the films that we see in theaters nowadays, and I actually think, in the right hands, this is a film that could be remade today. Of course the postwar angle plays a very large role in the motivation of the story for the filmmakers in the case of this film, but it wouldn’t have to in a remake if the right angle was approached when it came to the wrong-doings Lime was involved in. The one question I think would be interesting to see the answer to was posed by Roger Ebert in his look back at this film 12 years ago:

“Do you think Anna will cave in to Holly–or will she remain true to her bitter cynicism and unspeakable knowledge?”

The Third Man ends on such a downer note you would assume if this film were to be remade inside the studio system the few items that make this story tragic, and were the actual best parts, would be absolutely trashed. It would be as Roger Ebert describes it if Selznick had made the film the way he wanted to, “forgotten in a week.” However, if they increased the audience’s awareness of what a villain Lime is before he is revealed to be alive, and kept Anna faithful to the criminal despite what she knows about him, it would make for a great return to classic cinema as long as some idiot producer doesn’t think Brett Ratner or John Moore is the one to direct it.

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Weekend: Nov. 14, 2019, Nov. 17, 2019

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