Thursday, March 27, 2014

Noir Week Day 3: The Third Man

Get out your passports and cigarettes, we're reviewing The Third Man!

When pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in postwar Vienna for a new job from his longtime friend Harry Lime (Orson Wells), he's shocked to discover that Harry's dead. The international police think Harry was involved in some less-than-legal activities. With strange details surrounding Harry's death, Holly sets off to clear his friend's name and find out what really happened to Harry Lime!

It's rare to see a movie with Orson Wells where he doesn't steal the show. But here we are! The Third Man is actually quite a good mystery and a nice study into what causes someone to turn on a friendship. It asks the question: Do you ever really know someone? 

The biggest actors here are the steeped-in-shadow, cobbled-together city of Vienna and its numerous shady denizens. This is one of the most beautifully shot noir films. It's got tons of dramatic staging; Smoke billows obscuring characters' faces; Looming shadows of slowly approaching figures projected onto the sides of buildings; Cops and criminals racing through the underbelly of the sewer system, throwing beams of light through the darkness. And every once in a while, we cut to a random shot of a nondescript, dirty old man in shadow. If you were to study one noir film on how to make a terrifying and suspenseful city, this would be it. The shots are staged gorgeously with characters walking in just the right way, and the proper number of Dutch angles to really throw the viewer into a sense of dread and terror. It's fantastic.

It's hard to tell whether the mystery is good or predictable, because I was ruined by the back of the DVD box. What the hell, Criterion? But even though I knew where it was going, I still enjoyed the ride. Most of the movie is concerned with Holly figuring out just what the hell is going on, and it's done really well. It helps that he's a pulp mystery writer, adding a tiny bit of meta to the narrative. I'm always a fan of meta and mystery writers solving mysteries. What's fascinating here is that since this is takes place in Vienna, large parts of the dialogue are spoken in German with no subtitles. But the story is so forward-moving you can either still tell what's going on, or you're just as confused as Holly. It's a nice touch. I thought Cotten as Holly was great fun, and the cast of characters he encounters all have pretty enjoyable personalities. I especially liked Trevor Howard as Major Colloway, but that might just be the British accent. And young Orson Welles has such a young baby face, it's easy to see how his character could trap you in his spell.

The one thing I couldn't stand was the score. It's all done on a Zither, which makes it sound deceptively sing-song and exotic. I can admire what they were going for, but I found it annoying most of the time, and was glad when it was gone. It's really obnoxious in some parts. It would change the movie experience completely, but I wish it was something else. Anything else. Kazoo and xylophone, maybe. 

It's weird that the brunt of the story is fairly straightforward, but that so many details never get explained. We never really learn the extent of Harry's crimes, or find out who certain shady characters are. And Holly himself doesn't take the usual beating we’ve come to expect a normal private dick to go through. Hell, this would count as a vacation for Phillip Marlowe! However many shortcomings the story has, the film more than makes up for it in the beautiful visuals. There are some wonderful chase scenes, but most of the story is told in its subtler moments – like when a girl is slowly walking towards the camera and Holly is waiting for her, but then she walks past the camera. It's a really beautiful film. 

The Third Man is a pretty good mystery, but more importantly, a beautifully shot portrayal of dramatic light and shadow.

THE GOOD: Pretty good story, beautifully shot, great cinematography, great acting, good chase scenes, good suspense.

THE BAD: Annoying score, some details don't add up, protagonist doesn't get beat up enough.

THE VERDICT: $$$$ You should see this for the shots and set-ups alone. It's gorgeously dramatic and beautifully unnerving.

MOVIES LIKE IT: Night and the City, OSS 117: Cairo, A Nest of Spies, A lonely Place, A Touch of Evil, Maltese Falcon, Casablanca

ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: When Holly goes to talk to a witness, a crowd of people are gathering, and he finds the witness has been killed. A small child sees Holly and starts shouting something that Holly doesn't understand, but the whole crowd starts looking at him, Dutch shots of their faces in shadow, and it slowly dawns on Holly that they think HE'S the killer.

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