Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Third Man (1949) ***


(There possibly could be spoilers contained within this post.)

If anyone ever deserved an Oscar for Best Cinematography it was Robert Krasker for his outstanding work on The Third Man (1949). Yes, the story is intriguing and the actors are engaging, but it’s the cinematogrphy that makes this film the preeminent film noir. 

org third man13711Director Carol Reed was a visual genius and a great handler of enormous egos.  His bold use of off-angle shots and keen understanding of lighting are two of the features that make The Third Man such an original movie. His ability to ‘handle’ the likes of Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli is what brings the whole production into one cohesive visual masterpiece.  Oh, and he did it primarily on location in a rubble covered Vienna.

The story, penned by Graham Greene, finds American Holly Martins (Cotton) arriving in Vienna to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles), who has promised him a job. Unfortunately for Martins, Lime has just been killed and is being buried.  A writer of pulp Westerns, Martins finds the story behind Lime’s death suspicious and starts his own investigation.  He meets an eccentric cast of characters as he searches for the truth.  First, there is Major Calloway (HMBDTHMA EC026oward), a British officer who claims that Lime was a no-good black marketer who sold tainted penicillin to hospitals which killed and/or maimed hundreds of people.  Then there’s Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), a friend of Lime’s who carries a small dog around and attempts to convince Martins that Lime’s death was a freak accident.  The problem is that there are conflicting reports about who saw what and when.  The big point of contention is whether two or three men carried Lime’s body out of the street after it was struck by a truck.  Kurtz is accounted for and so is Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), but who was the third man (hence the title)?  It obviously wasn’t Anna Schmidt (Valli), Lime’s actress girlfriend who Martins soon falls for.  It takes a dangerous ride on a Ferris Wheel to reveal the truth, and a claustrophobic manhunt through the Vienna sewers to bring the third man to justice.

the-third-man (1)Krasker was highly influenced by German Expressionism and it shows.  When Reed decided that they would use off-angle shots throughout most of the movie I expect Krasker brushed up on the work of Robert Wiene (most notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Fritz Lang (probably his Dr. Mabuse). When asked about the off-angle shots Reed replied that he “shot most of the film with a wide-angle lens that distorted the buildings and emphasized the wet cobblestone streets. But the angle of vision was just to suggest that something crooked was going on.” Oddly enough he also said he decided this device wasn’t a good idea and that he pretty much abandoned it for the remainder of his career.  Of course, he may have been influenced by William Wyler’s spirit level gift, which Reed was given after Wyler viewed the 3picture. I, for one, think it was a brilliant idea and adds a visual uniqueness to the film.

The German Expressionists also knew how to use light and shadow, and what noir worth it’s salt wouldn’t employ the manipulation of light to create lasting images?  There are several scenes in The Third Man that I could point to to illustrate my point, but I’ll just discuss my two favorite ones.  The first is when the third man is revealed standing in the shadows of a doorway by a beaming light.  His face is fittingly half-lit with a wonderful smirk.  The second is when what seems like the entire police force is staked out to capture the-third-man-balloon-manthe third man and a larger than life shadow emerges at the top of a dark street and slowly becomes smaller as it comes closer to them to reveal that it is a balloon vendor. 

All of these wonderful shots are set to Anton Karas’ memorable “Third Man Theme”. The story behind this could have also been made into a film. Karas was discovered by Reed after the director heard him playing a zither in a Vienna beer garden while Reed was location scouting. Thinking the zither sound an apt representation of Vienna, Reed asked Karas to write and record the film’s score. When the song was released in the United States it topped the charts for eleven weeks—really.

The acting in The Third Man is top-notch, too. Cotton plays disillusioned well and Valli is convincing as a somber, realistic woman of the world.  Howard’s Calloway is the quintessential British officer and Deutsch is exceptionally smarmy as a dilettante manipulator. But the standout performance belongs to Welles, who had the audacity to make his vile character one of the most likable villains to grace the silver screen. There’s pep in his step and a wicked gleam in his eye in his few scenes, but they are so freaking memorable.

ThirdMan-ending2But, Welles does not have the honor of being in THE most memorable scene in The Third Man—and THE most memorable closing shot in all of film.  That honor belongs to Cotton and Valli—and a tree-lined street adjacent to the Friedhof Cemetery.  It is a 65-second stagnant long-shot of “Martins leaning against a wagon in the left foreground as Anna approaches from a great distance, getting progressively closer, and - without so much as a glance in his direction - finally walking past him and out of frame. Martins then lights a cigarette and in exasperation, throws the match to the ground, after which the picture fades to black. The strains of Karas's zither music are heard c4throughout the shot,” (from Richard Raskin’s Closure in The Third Man: On the Dynamics of an Unhappy Ending). Quite simply, it is an unforgettable way to end a movie.

Overall, I adore the visual elements of The Third Man. The acting is good, as well. Yet, what prevents me from pushing this film into four-star status is that it does drag at points.  I don’t know if this is because there are so many awesome shots without dialogue, which seems to make me wish the characters would stop talking so I can concentrate on the visuals or what.  Yes, I know that sounds strange (or perhaps stupid), but there must be something lacking in a film if what I remember most are the shots without any dialogue. 


  1. Nice examination of the photography in this film. There are so many rumors surrounding this, sometimes it's hard to distinguish how much of this was Carol Reed, and how much was Orson Welles not being able to help himself. Because jesus, this looks like a Welles film.

    The zither theme is my ringtone on my phone, I love it that much. And the scenes you singled out are ones I've seen I don't know how many times. I will rewind the scene with the cat and watch it at least three times every time I see this movie. It makes me excited - EXCITED! Not many scenes do that.

    I hesitate on calling this a genre noir, though. Oh, it's definitely noir in terms of style - really, with its amazing cinematography, how could it not be - but Holly Martins as played by Cotten is too... weak? Goody two shoes? Black and white? to convince me that this is a noir in terms of genre. There is a significant lack of shades of gray when it comes to morality issues in The Third Man that makes me consider this a rip-roaring NOT noir story told distinctly in the noir style.

    But maybe I'm just getting a bit too poncey for my own good. Most likely.

    Anyway, great movie, love it, nice review.

    1. Anything that Welles was in always seems to have rumors. Reed has said that the only real Welles' touch was the speech he gives on the Ferris Wheel. Heck, Welles was hardly in Vienna (a matter of days from what I've read) and had minimal exposure in the London studio.

      It's not really a Hollywood noir, as it was all-around pretty much British made, so I suppose it shouldn't be called a genre noir, but from a cinematography standpoint it definitely is.

  2. The Ferris wheel scene is the heart of the film in my opinion. Everything hinges on that sequence. I love that as the two men battle verbally back and forth, they also swing back and forth, sometimes with one above the other, sometimes reversed, just like the conversation. And Welles's speech once they reach the ground? That's poetry.

    Welles also gets one of the greatest entrances in film history. That moment is magic.

    I love this one, obviously. I'm a big Graham Greene fan, and he wrote the script, so I admit to being biased on this one.

    1. Good point, Steve, the Ferris Wheel scene is quite important. Welles is credited as having made a bit of that dialogue up.

  3. Kim, it has lost some impact for me over the years. It's visually stunning (as you describe quite well), Welles is in fine form, and the post-war themes are intriguing. I agree that it drags in spots, but my major beef with the vacuous Valli character and the actress's performance. As a result, the closing scene carries no emotion for me...other than feeling that Holly is better off without her.

    1. I didn't really have a problem with Valli, Rick, but I think that has a lot to do with my somewhat sympathizing with her character. As for the ending, it was so anti-Hollywood and different from what Greene wrote that I have to admire it. What a way to end a film.

  4. Wow - this looks great! Even the screencaps you've posted look amazing.

    I've heard "The Third Man" radio shows, starring our pal Orson, but have yet to see the movie. Thanks for reviewing!

  5. This is a great movie and a good review. Maybe I liked it a little better than you did. Unlike you I actually think there are a lot of grey in the movie. Martins comes to Vienna with an almost stereotypical black and white worldview, but as he is sucked into the Viennese reality he finds out that that world is not black and white, but full of grey. The ending is such good example. Was it good or bad that Lime got stopped? The answer is a maybe. Anna did not think so.

    1. I never looked at this as a study in the ambiguity of the world. You've given me something to ponder, TS. I did like this--the cinematography is awesome.