Originally a 1949 drama, The Third Man, was re-released after being digitally restored in 4k. The British film, which is in the Criterion collection and was named as the all-time top British film, has been touring across the United States throughout the year.
This thrilling, visually striking film is the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as he tries to solve the mysterious death of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Martins goes to visit Lime in Vienna, following World War II, to try and earn some money. Instead, he finds himself wandering the city after finding Lime had been hit by a truck.
This movie is not the most action packed, thrilling or dramatic movie, but this movie captures audiences. Most movies obey a standard equation: Intro, character meeting, action scene, explanation for scene, plot development, action, villain downfall, conclusion. The Third Man does not follow this and is patient for the plot development and twists. At 1 hour 44 minutes, the movie feels longer because it is not following today’s formula. This movie does not survive on car chases or gore, but rather from the solid plot and investment of the audience.
The style of this movie is set up by a series of factors: the lighting, shot selection, acting, writing and subject.
Lighting: The cinematographer, Robert Krasker worked to make this movie not only dark, but beautiful. Using shadows, long corridors and the breath-taking Austrian scenery, Krasker created a movie that works better in black and white than it would in color. At the beginning of the movie, most of the scenes are daylit and bright. As Martins finds out more about the “murder” of his friend, the shots get significantly darker until they ultimately end in the unlit sewers.
Shot Selection: The shots in this movie tend to be close and tight on the face, not an unusual choice for this time period. The strange part comes when Krasker tilts the camera. Many of the shots in this movie come at an angle which, according to Roger Ebert, signifies “a world out of joint.” In order to create this sense of confusion, the shots often left characters walking into darkness or looking off screen. The final shot (my personal favorite), is an image of Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) walking down a road past Martins. The shot went on much longer than expected, but became a beautiful scene where Martins must let her go.
Acting: At the beginning of the movie, we are taken to the funeral for Lime. Here, we see several of the characters, including his girlfriend Schmidt. At first this seems like a throw-away character, but due to Valli’s acting (and the strong writing), this character becomes an important and complex character. Along with Valli, the wonderful screen performance by Welles, although only on screen for 30 minutes, brings The Third Man to a thrilling conclusion. Arguably one of his best performances, Welles brings a lot of talent to the movie and also tests Martins’ loyalty and friendship.
Writing: The writing in this movie is nothing short of fantastic. This movie takes the time to build a serious scene and is not afraid to break the tension with a hilarious moment with a balloon man.
But while this film doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is not afraid to comment on society. At the time of this movie, World War II and all of the bloodshed had just ended. “You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love–they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The main focus of this movie is to find the truth about Harry Lime’s death. The premise is the same as most murder-mysteries today, but there is something that you have to keep in mind. This movie was released (in the US) in 1950. This movie was created to capture the beauty and romance of film. This is not a movie to turn on as background noise, but a movie into which you must fully invest yourself and desire to watch.
For any film buff, this is a must see and for those who love the old movies, there will be no complaints. If you want to see explosions, you are reading the wrong review. This is for the connoisseur of old mystery movies. It is fantastic in every aspect and should be seen by anyone who wants to understand why movies were not just a passing fad, but an institution which we all love and enjoy. See it in all of its 4:3 glory, playing for a limited time only in a theater, hopefully, near you.
Images from Little White Lies and Walker Art