Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Third Man (1949)

It's hard for me to admit this in public, and maybe, just maybe, it undercuts my status as...whatever. But, hey, we all have holes in our education, right? So, it is with much head-hanging and abashment that I admit I had never seen THE THIRD MAN. I don't know how it happened. I'm sure there have been dozens of opportunities, on TV, on VHS, on DVD, at the wonderful Dryden Theatre. It just...never happened. So here I am, a convert telling you, you HAVE to see this movie! Here's how AFI starts its entry on the film:

"In post-war Vienna, a city occupied by four Allied forces and sustained by a thriving black market, American writer Holly Martins arrives, penniless, at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime, who had offered him a job. Holly goes to Harry's apartment and is told by the porter that Harry was run over by a car and killed. He rushes to the cemetery, where he finds Harry's funeral in progress. As he leaves the gravesite, Holly is approached by a British officer, Major Calloway, who offers him a ride and buys him a drink. When Calloway tells him that Harry was a notorious racketeer, Holly drunkenly vows to prove him wrong. Later, at his hotel, Holly is approached by Crabbin, the head of a cultural institute, who mistakes him for a prestigious novelist and offers to pay for his stay in Vienna if he will speak at one of their meetings. Holly soon receives a call from "Baron" Kurtz, who identifies himself as a friend of Harry and arranges to meet Holly at a café. Kurtz describes Harry's accident and mentions that Harry's Rumanian friend Popescu was also present when Harry died. Holly inquires about the beautiful woman he saw at the funeral, and Kurtz replies that she was Harry's girl friend, Anna Schmidt, an actress at the Josefstadt Theatre. Holly calls on Anna after a performance, and she tells him that Harry's personal physician, Dr. Winkel, happened to show up at the scene of the accident, and that the man behind the wheel of the car was actually Harry's driver. Anna expresses her suspicion that Harry's death was not accidental, and accompanies Holly to Harry's apartment to question the porter. Contrary to Kurtz's account, the porter says that Harry was killed at once, adding that an unidentified third man was present and helped carry the body."

Of course, that's just the set-up. The script from Graham Greene is twisty and wonderful. Director Carol Reed was obviously influenced by Orson Welles' style, specifically THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, but (very possibly) takes it further. Not only does it have the canted angles and quick cuts of the former film, but shooting in war-torn Vienna lends an incredible reality to the Kafa-esque landscape through which our hero, Joseph Cotten, runs through. The crumbling cityscape suggests absent information and the broken steps ensure that no one has secure footing, even as our hero tries to put it all together. The entire film is scored by zither, lending a playful counterpoint to the deadly proceedings. I dropped the DVD in when I couldn't fall asleep and ended up watching the whole thing, finally falling asleep at about 3am. I couldn't stop watching. It's one of those films.

Oh, it's not noir, but it's good. The problem with classifying this film as noir, despite its formalist visuals, is the protagonist. Joseph Cotten is a loyal, bumbling hero, not an anti-hero, not a criminal himself. He doesn't find a new darkness in his soul, he is simply dropped into a dark world. He is out of his element, but still makes it through somehow, by virtue of his virtue, or sheer persistence and connection with capable people. He is much more akin to a Hitchcock hero, and Hitchcock is quoted almost visual-for-visual in one sequence in particular.

So, please, if you haven't already, run out and see this film. I think you'll thank me for it. Then come back and we'll discuss.

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