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The Third Man (review)

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Brave New World

[spoiler -- sort of]

It’s one of the great movie questions, up there with What was in the trunk in Repo Man? and Where did the pocketwatch come from in Somewhere in Time? Who was the third man?

What is The Third Man is no great mystery: it’s one of the greatest expressions of the noir attitude ever committed to film. If noir reflects the cultural anxieties of the day — as modern noir such as Blue Velvet and Pulp Fiction mirror fears about, respectively, sex and drugs — then The Third Man may be the truest depiction of the chaos and confusion of the period right after WWII, when national alliances were shifting and the horrors of the war, so recently uncovered, would begin to pale in comparison of those of the politically unstable world the war left in its wake.
But who was the third man? Dime novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to postwar Vienna from America, promised a job by his best friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But Martins arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral — his friend was killed, apparently, in a road accident, run down by a truck right outside his apartment building. Curious in his grief, Martins tries to find out exactly what happened, and he makes some disconcerting discoveries. Behind the wheel of the fateful truck was Lime’s own driver. The two men who witnessed the accident were both Lime’s intimates: the violin-playing Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and a mysterious Romanian called Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), and they say the two of them carried the dying Lime across the street where they were met by, coincidentally enough, Lime’s own doctor, Winkel (Erich Ponto). Martins smells a rat, and keeps digging, turning up a witness who didn’t see Lime run down but did see the aftermath, and he insists that there were three men who carried Lime across the street.

Martins’ quest to find this third man and learn just what befell Lime leads him to uncover more than he wanted to know about his old friend: the dangerous racketeering he was involved in, which caught the attention of dogged British army officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard: Gandhi), part of the international force policing the ruined city; and Lime’s perplexing behavior toward his girlfriend, actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and her continued devotion to him even after his death. Like Casablanca — that other great wartime story — The Third Man eventually turns on issues of loyalty, friendship, and love. But what price friendship? What price loyalty? When does the price become too high to keep paying?

And The Third Man does take place in wartime, during the new, undeclared cold war that had nations staring warily at one another, like the uneasy British, French, Russian, and American troops do in The Third Man‘s divided, tightly controlled Vienna. And yet for all the heavy military presence, Martins learns that there’s a dangerous lawlessness to this new Vienna — one bombed out, choked in rubble, and inhabited by desperate people — a frontier mentality not unlike that evinced by the characters in the Western novels he writes. This is a city that lives in its underground, both figuratively and literally, with black marketeers dominating the economy and the extensive sewer system a handy conduit for travel between the cities closed sectors. Just as nations were learning that former allies could not longer be trusted — Calloway has a particular suspicion of his Russian counterpart — so does Martins discover, the hard way, that those who were once friends can no longer be automatically considered such, and those who could use some much-needed help don’t always want it.

“Everybody ought to be careful in a city like this,” Popescu warns Martins, and nary a moment passes in The Third Man in which you don’t share in Martins’ apprehensiveness and disorientation in this new world. Directed by Carol Reed (Oliver!), the starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematography lays an unsettled gloom over Vienna’s cobblestone streets, narrow and rain-slicked, and the zither score, by Anton Karas, adds a discordant note. If it feels like there’s just no rest and no comfort for Martins to be had here, well, that’s the point.

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb
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