The AFI Top 100 Movies: The Third Man (#57)

The Third Man (1949)
Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene

Part-film noir, part-European murder mystery, The Third Man isn’t something I’ve ever seen before. The protagonist, a writer visiting a friend in war-torn Vienna, isn’t as hard-boiled as your standard detective. The femme fatale isn’t quite as devious or troublesome as you see in this type of movie, either. But the fight against a monolithic, byzantine system is just as confusing and demoralizing as ever, and the touches that serve to visualize the struggle really brings that home. In fact, the setting is so well-constructed it’s no surprise that the characters are so outmatched by it.

Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Cotten) is invited to Vienna to stay with his childhood friend, Harry Lime. He arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, though — it turns out he was run down by a car. Martins quickly figures there’s some foul play at work, and tries to sort through his friend’s messy life in an even messier city to get the truth. This earns him a few enemies along the way, and every time he gets an answer there are three more questions that spring up. Anna Schmidt (Valli), one of Lime’s ex-girlfriends, bonds with him through the course of the investigation. At least, until they get an answer neither of them were expecting.

The movie really doesn’t play like a film noir, even though it has all the pieces in place. No one complains about the heat, Martins and Schmidt actually like and trust each other until circumstances tear them apart, and Martins isn’t done in by his own heroism. What actually does happen would be interesting if the characters behaved a bit more logically. When all of the cards are on the table and the main characters do have to make their decisions, they prove to be ultimately disappointing. But more on that later.

The real reason to watch this movie is the wonderful strangeness of post-war Vienna. The city is divided into Russian, French, German and English territories. Each of the foreign nationals seem to mix freely in any of them, though, so chances are most people you meet won’t speak your language. Director Carol Reed has characters hold conversations in their native tongue whether his main character can keep up or not, and it only adds to his confusion — and ours — to great effect. He must be missing something, but what? Broken English can only get you so far when you’re dealing with a complex subject like covering up a homicide.

The other fascinating thing about this movie is Orson Welles himself. His character’s reveal is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in a long time, and Martin’s meeting with him is as riveting as it should be. The entire movie pivots on his one important scene, and afterwards we have a very different idea of where it’s going. Both Martins and Schmidt are forced to deal with what they learn, and here’s where the movie unfortunately falls apart.

I’m all right with my characters having a strong gray streak. After all, this is a film noir. However, I do have an issue with characters who don’t seem to have reasons for choosing one virtue over another. Both Martin and Schmidt consider loyalty to be more important than anything else in the movie, and that doesn’t ring true for me. Knowing what they know to be true, it deeply diminishes my regard for them to see them behave the way they do in the third act. Not only because it’s morally bankrupt, but also because it’s senseless behavior.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the mystery, so I’ll leave it at that. The Third Man is a nice, strange movie that doesn’t give you a chance to orient yourself. If you’re into that sort of thing — and you have a high tolerance for unlikeable characters — this is probably your movie.

Rating: 7/10.

One thought on “The AFI Top 100 Movies: The Third Man (#57)

  1. The Third Man is a really amazing, compelling movie; it’s one of those which pretty much traps me every time I catch a bit of it on Turner Classic Movies, since who wants to leave before the end?

    I think its most fascinating postscript is that there was a radio series based on Orson Welles’s character, one which makes him the respectably lovable star even though in The Third Man he plays a horrible, evil person, and even more so one which spoils a key plot point of the movie in the opening credits of the show.

    Another amusing little postscript is that it apparently set off a wave of zither enthusiasm; there’s a number of little jokes in both comedies and dramas of the era talking about how they can’t get that theme song out of their heads. Arthur C Clarke even refers to it in one of his Tales From The White Hart stories, “The Ultimate Melody”, all about those little songs you can’t get out of your head.

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