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Film Review: The Third Man

Not quite Film Noir

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The Third Man

Directed by Carol Reed

Plays at the Charles Theatre Dec. 21 at 11:30 a.m., Dec. 23 at 7 p.m., and Dec. 26 at 9 p.m.

1949’s The Third Man is one of those rare movies where everything goes right. Set just after World War II, it’s the story of American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) traveling to Vienna on the promise of a job offer from his old classmate Harry Lime (brilliantly played by Orson Welles), who he hasn’t seen in 10 years. Martins, a third-rate writer of cheap Western novels who doesn’t speak a lick of German, arrives confused and lost. Vienna is in shambles, carved up among the Allied Powers. The bombed-out city is strangely photogenic; baroque statues and cathedrals loom over ruins and piles of broken brick.

Martins soon learns his friend is dead, run over by a car just a few days before—he’s just in time for the funeral. He’s told by a British major (Trevor Howard) that Lime was a racketeer. Incensed at the suggestion, Martins resolves to discover the truth about Lime. He stumbles across a cabal of creeps who identify Lime as an acquaintance, and he begins to suspect his old friend’s death might not have been an accident. Enter Lime’s beautiful and bereaved lover, Anna (Alida Valli).

This may sound like the lead-up to a run-of-the-mill detective story, but Martins is too inept to detect anything. Little goes right for him. He misses clues, gets punched, is bitten by a parrot, and is accused of murder. Oblivious to Vienna’s whirlwind of languages, he relies on others to translate. When he’s wrangled into giving a speech on the contemporary novel after a propaganda official finds out he’s a writer, he flops.

What makes the The Third Man so right are the things it does wrong. It could be film noir, but it’s too funny. It could be a love story, but the girl isn’t interested. It could be a war film, but everybody shows up after the bombs dropped. It defies all these stereotypes and replaces them with questions: What happens when a war ends? How do you act when someone you care about does something unconscionable? How do you know what is right in a situation so far beyond your understanding?

Besides all that, The Third Man is a blast to watch. Graham Greene’s screenplay is sharp, witty, and chock-full of great lines. Gorgeous cinematography by Robert Krasker capitalizes on the ruined beauty of Vienna with a slew of long takes and scenes thrown in shadowy relief. The zither music slinking in the background complements the film’s many moods. And the last half-hour is a crazed series of ups and downs and changed minds, leading to one of the best chase scenes ever. All this places The Third Man among the great works of post-war dark humor like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch 22: works that look beneath the myths and politics of war for the people underneath, trying desperately to find a way to live.

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