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The Third Man (1949)

by on 2011/03/07

Hey, kids! Who’s ready for some homework?

I don’t remember when I first saw The Third Man but, much as I wanted to appreciate it, I didn’t. My only memories were of sheer bloody boredom, a score overstaying its welcome, and a whole lot more work than play.

In the pantheon of cinematic classics, however, this piece is considered not only one of the greats of film noir, but one of the greats, full stop. Besides, it has Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. How could I not give it a chance to disappoint me again?

Cotten portrays Holly Martins, an American pulp novelist who travels to postwar Vienna at the summons of an old friend, Harry Lime (Welles). Shortly after arriving, he learns Harry has just been killed in a traffic accident. When he begins to ask questions about the incident, a number of suspicious things happen. Mourners vie for his support, various accounts contradict each other, and the occupying military forces try to hasten his departure.

Was Harry Lime purposely murdered? If so, why? And why are the locals paranoid, withholding information? Who is the mysterious third man who helped to carry Lime’s body from the scene, who can now no longer be found? Why would someone helping Martins suddenly turn up dead?

In some ways, The Third Man exemplifies great noir. Questions of identity, allegiance, and betrayal run throughout the tale, yet reveal themselves too deliberately to build a compelling momentum. The protagonist doesn’t help. Ostensibly a pushy, mouthy interloper with an arrogant sense of entitlement, he proves a rudderless weakling, too often allied with his most recent interviewee.

The staging, lighting, and composition fares better. Locations flaunt an impressive scale and detail . . . with lots and lots of steps. Staircases, stairwells, and wrought iron monstrosities connect all the levels of Vienna, inside and out. Jagged shadows and canted angles accentuate the unbalancing act, and the untranslated local languages add another kind of displacement.

Unfortunately, I found little else to scratch my film noir itch. The intensely European locale felt as disconnected from the urban Twentieth Century as the absence of gangsters and jazz. It may come down to personal taste, but the aesthetics of Old World Baroque, even filtered through the Cold War, did little to win me over.

Similarly, the popular and critically acclaimed score by Anton Karas is simply not to my liking. Although I find the song itself appealing, I didn’t care for the zither interpretation, nor the excessive frequency with which the theme was revisited. Rather than lending a sense of time and place, it felt quirky, frivolous, and grating.

So if my appreciation has grown at all, my enjoyment has not. Have I got the wrong ideas about film noir? The Third Man being a perennial “great” well and truly astounds me. I very much want to “get” it and, as some of my favourites took time, perhaps that day will come yet. While I have little doubt I’ll see it again, it won’t be for entertainment.

* * *

Rated PG

105 minutes

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