In a continuing series in which I examine items from a list considered the mostest greatestest films of all time – The Third Man (1949) written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed, and produced by David O. Selznick, this film floats in the middle of the AFI top 100 films. Anything that is anywhere on the top 100 films of all time had better be brilliant.
The Third Man is good but not top 100 material. “C” saved by the “C”inematography.
In post-war Vienna, American novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) enthusiastically arrives in post-war Vienna to meet and get a job working for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) but is stunned to learn that he is dead. As Martins walks up to Lime’s funeral, at least three people are watching him. One of those is Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who had been in pursuit of Lime and has been watching as many of Lime’s friends as possible. Calloway offers Martins a ride from the funeral and immediately brings him to a bar to get him drunk and learn what he might know about Lime’s alleged black market racketeering enterprise. After trashing Lime’s memory in front of Martins, Calloway dodges two punches from the American abroad and then hands him a few bucks to get a room for the night, but Calloway also advises him to get on a flight back to America the next day. Before Martins can make plans to leave, more “acquaintances” of Lime approach him with questions, to which Martins has his own questions. When the answers don’t seem to correlate, he decides to hang around Vienna to find the real story about what happened to his friend Harry Lime.
The premise is perfect – a dead friend whom everyone knew but nobody will talk about, spies following the American, witnesses reluctant to talk, a beautiful woman who cries at the funeral but claims not to know the deceased, an officer who seems to know enough to keep pushing, and witnesses disappearing. Every time Martins asks a question, he has two more that need answering. Every time a door opens, it leads to two more that are closed. Film noir defined. So what reason could there be for The Third Man – which refers to the possible third man who carried away the body of Harry Lime – to not deserve its place in the top films of all time? Stupidity.
There are many things I can accept in a film, including a time machine in a DeLorean, and I know that sometimes we just have no choice but to suspend belief. Usually, that means time-travel devices, how the zombies are created, and Kurt Russell leaping from a surfboard onto the truck of a moving car in Escape from LA. However, suspending belief should not be necessary when it comes to something outside of science fiction or fantasy. There is a porter who worked for Lime and witnesses the crime scene from an upper-floor window. When Martins asks questions, the porter explains some of what he knows but expresses his preference to not get involved. Later, Martins is reviewing the crime scene in the street below the window and calls to the porter about the scene. The porter then shouts down to him that he has more to tell him and that they should meet later that night. Really? You’re in a city with more spies than rats, and you’re going to shout from an apartment window that you want to meet later because you have more information about a murder? I fault Reed as director.
But wait! There’s more! It was obvious from the opening scene that Harry Lime was not actually dead, so it was just a matter of when, where, and why he would reveal himself. When he did, it was done with great risk considering the previously stated situation about a city full of cops, military officers, and spies. Although we know it is one of the most popular scenes of all time for demonstrating the use of black and white film, it was still a foolish move for someone who was supposed to be so talented, both Welles as a storyteller and Welles as the character of Harry Lime. When he reveals himself a second time, it is in broad daylight in the middle of a carnival. People are everywhere, any of whom could be an undercover person. He shows up to face his friend’s Martins request, and they take a ride on a ferris wheel. During this second stupid move comes a third stupid move on the part of Martins. Too many times we see a person who knows more than they should, and they threaten the other person with that information. Why does the person with the information rarely ever take the time to realize that they are signing their own death warrant? Martins doesn’t realize that he not only has no clue if Lime has a gun but he also makes the threat while at the top of the ferris wheel, where Lime could easily push him out to keep him deadly quiet.
In one last demonstration of idiocy, Martins – after learning that his friend Lime had been mistakenly declared dead – does not take a moment to consider why Lime had done so and immediately runs to the authorities. Why isn’t Martins smart enough to first find out what Lime is up to? Why doesn’t Martins take the time to think, “Hmm. Lime isn’t dead, but people think he is dead. I wonder what he might stand to gain in all this?” Is this how friends treat each other? I don’t think so. At least not friends who travel halfway around the world to see you, friends that have known you for over 20 years and you’ve been swearing to the police that he is a good man. Of course we later learn that Lime is nothing but slime because of his black market dealings, but Martins did not know that yet and should have given his friend the benefit of the doubt.
The music in the film, while apparently “indigenous” to Vienna, is more annoying than a swarm of mosquitoes. The plucking strings that carry us from one scene to the next seem like some kind of comical attempt at hypnosis and will have you reaching for the remote to mute the sound until you see someone speaking again. One great aspect of the film is where it won an Oscar for cinematography. The use of black and white is pure art. The contrasts between backlighting and hazy, misty night shots is perfect. The angles used while shooting (with guns and cameras) in the sewer system is fabulous. Especially interesting are the odd angles at which many close-ups were presented. Some shots seem as if you are the camera, standing over two people at a sidewalk café. Rarely in life are we perfectly lined up either horizontally or vertically, and these camera angles present many shots that way, and it’s something I can’t think of seeing before. One of the more famous shots includes the fingers of Orson Welles reaching through a sewer grate after suffering a gunshot wound and trying to escape to the street. His fingers weakly grasp through, but when they slip back below the grate he is grasping his gun again. Kind of a blooper there, and a glaring one that I can’t imagine how the editor missed it.
Alfred Hitchcock was known to practically insult audiences and openly admit that he could fool them into believing anything he wanted, proof of that is the airplane scene in North by Northwest. I wonder if Selznick and Welles were thinking the same thing when they were adding up The Third Man.