Thursday, August 19, 2021

Throwback Thursday: A Film Noir Favorite, The Third Man

This week I again watched one of my fave film noir movies, The Third Man. Film noir was a style of Hollywood film, popular in the 40's and 50's that sought to expose and exploit the dark side of life. Themes were ambiguous, often not pretty, and occasionally considered scandalous. 
They were primarily black and white and gritty. Many have been resurrected less successfully than intended (eg. Cape Fear), though some have emulated the genre with superb flare (eg. L.A. Confidential). 

The Third Man 
The film -- starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard -- is based on the novel by Graham Greene. The zither soundtrack is playful and somber simultaneously. If you've seen the film before the opening strumming will give you a lift as you know you're entering a story that has previously moved you. I have never tired of this interaction of these well defined characters with competing motives. 

 Unrelenting fascination is what I experience every time I watch this movie. It never seems old. It remains alive in my mind, haunting me, with its unearthly music, its dark, oblique photography and crisp, well-crafted storyline. 

Orson Welles excels, delivering some great lines and also one the best entrances in movie history to go along with a superb exit as well. It couldn't be better. I can't even express how I feel in words. If you've seen it it's worth re-visiting, and worth seeing if you haven't. 

The music track is Anton Karras on the zither. It greets you at the open and carries you through. When I hear the opening notes it awakens anticipation and memories simultaneously. 

Here's an informative review of the film from 
Of all the movies during the studio era (pre-1960ish), there are three movies with cinematography that always stick out in my mind: Gregg Toland's work in Citizen Kane, Russel Mety's work in Touch of Evil, and Robert Krasker's work in The Third Man (all starring Orson Welles). 

I just recently saw a restored 35mm version of The Third Man. The vivid black and white visuals of a bombed out Vienna are breath-taking. Shadows are everywhere, a metaphor for the period detailed in this story. The unique way Krasker tilts the camera in some shots adds to the disorientation of the plot. And who can forget the first close-up of Welles with the light from an apartment room above splashing onto his face; one of the great entrances in movie history, made still more effective by the foreshadowing in the previous scene. Lime gives his old friend a smile that only Welles could give.

Here's my 2011 review of the film:  
Graham Greene 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.

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 certain points in all our life stories light strikes from a new angle, revealing 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.

* * * 
In case you can't tell, I really enjoyed this film. Each time I watch I catch subtle touches I'd missed previously. It's a film that has everything. Find it if you haven't seen it.

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