Sunday, January 23, 2011

Greene's The Third Man Continues To Satisfy


Ten days ago I saw Graham Greene's The Third Man on someone's list of the fifty greatest films of all time and I felt compelled to rent it again. I've read the book at least twice, Greene being among my favorite novelists. I can't say how many times I've seen the film but invariably each time it's an enriching experience.

The story takes place in Vienna after World War II. The narrator is a hack writer of Westerns, Holly Martens (Joseph Cotton) from America who has come to Vienna to find his old college chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon arrival in the divided city (there is an American, French, Brit and Russian sector, as partitioned by the Allies) he learns that Lime has been killed in an accident outside the apartment house where Martens had been expecting to meet him. The witnesses, however, share conflicting details and Martens begins to suspect foul play.

A reviewer who calls himself Snow Leopard wrote this about it:
This is a rare film that is flawless in every respect. It combines great acting and memorable characters with a fascinating story, taking place in an interesting setting and adding a creative musical score. "The Third Man" is remembered for many things - for Orson Welles' wonderful performance in his appearances as Harry Lime, for its wonderfully appropriate musical score, and for its nicely conceived plot surprises. Adding to these is Joseph Cotten's fine portrayal of Holly Martins, which holds the rest of it together - it is his character who initiates most of the action, and also through whom we view everything and everyone else.
Of this last statement I must comment. It's not just the exotic settings that make a Graham Greene story such a thrill to read, but also the incredible way he allows the reader to see the story, even when the narrator doesn't get it. In this case Holly Martens, saturated with sentimentalism, believes only the best about his old friend, resisting all evidence to the contrary.

The third star in this film is the beautiful and somewhat unheralded Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt. Martens loves his friend because he doesn't know the truth about Harry; Anna is smitten by Harry in spite of the truth about him. Tumultuous tragic love smashes itself against the rocks with resigned futility.

I must also take a moment here to extol the cinematography. Shot in black and white mostly on location in Vienna, every frame is a work of beauty. So much of the film is at night, allowing wonderful contrasts and surrealistically stark scenes. This all works perfectly to set up the first appearance of Welles hiding in a dark doorway, his face suddenly illuminated when a light across the street flames to life.

At a certain point in all our life stories, lights go on and reveal things we didn't previously understand. The clues were there all along, but until there is light nothing can be fully seen for what it is... whether we wish to see it or not.

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