February 08, 2012

The Third Man (1949)

There are movies that posses a remarkable technical excellence. There are also films that are simply just quite entertaining. And of course, there are movies of great artistic value too. And films that fully summarize the values and ideas of the time when they were made. And then there are films that truly encapsulate all that and more, that are so finely done that transcend their time, genre, nationality and are in fact real celebrations of that very human pleasure that is storytelling. Films that go beyond fulfilling the honorable goal of entertain and actually inspire. Those are masterpieces. And Carol Reed's "The Third Man" is one of those films. Produced in 1949, right at the beginning of the Cold War, "The Third Man" is a remarkable gem of filmmaking that more than 50 years after its release it still remains a captivating tale of mystery. A landmark of the broad thriller genre. The British Film Institute names it the best British film of the 20th Century. As pompous as that title may sound, it may actually not be that far from the truth.

"The Third Man" begins in Vienna, after Wolrd War II, where the city has been divided between the Allied forces. To the occupied city arrives American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an out of luck writer of pulp fiction, specifically Westerns, who has been offered a job by his childhood friend, Harry Lime. As soon as Martins arrives, he discovers that Lime was killed in an accident, ran over by a car while crossing the street. At Lime's funeral, Martins gets to know Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), and tries to figure out what happened in the last days of his dear friend. Martins begins to meet some of Lime's friends in Vienna, such as Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), who were with Lime when the accident took place. He also meets Lime's girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli) and becomes fascinated with her. Inside Martins, the suspicion that Lime was killed begins to grow, specially when he finds out that at the time of his death there was a third man present. Martins will have to find out the identity of the third man.

Written by celebrated author Grahamn Greene (who famously wrote it initially as a novel in order to develop the plot. The novel was subsequently published), "The Third Man" is a cleverly written story of mystery with a captivating plot full of twists and turns, and a remarkably well done set of characters. However, while the interesting complexities of the plot are a joy, the gem of Greene's screenplay is the dialogs, which are literate and intelligent, but never overdone or artificial. Also, while deeply imbued by the conventions of film noir, "The Third Man" is notable in its subtle and elegant touches of comedy, that permeate the film with a very distinctive British tone. But behind its thrilling plot and its classy style, there are several themes that Greene explores that allow multiple readings of the film. For starters, it's ironic and frank disbelief in a peaceful post-War era is evident, but it's in the bittersweet way "The Third Man" deals with the topics of friendship and betrayal where the heart of the film is.

Certainly, the quite distinctive visual style of "The Third Man" is another of its highlights, with director Carol Reed crafting a breathtaking thriller that it's pure cinema. While certainly Greene's screenplay is a joy, the purely visual elements that Reed conjures in "The Third Man" enhance the atmosphere and take full advantage of cinema as a narrative medium. The work of cinematographer Robert Krasker is of great beauty, with the extensive use of Dutch angle shots and an Expressionist lighting style generate an atmosphere of tension, reflecting the alienation felt by Martins, whom by all accounts is a stranger in a strange land. The use of real Vienna locations for exteriors gives the film a gritty realism, pretty much in tone with the harshness of its plot. And yet, as mentioned above, Reed imbues his film with a darkly comedic tone of irony that fits the cynicism of his characters. With subtlety, he makes them captivating without softening in any way the impact of their lurid story.

The work done by the cast is simply amazing, showing the talents of the many excellent actors gathered in the film. Leading the cast is Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, perfectly capturing the nervousness and naiveté of this pulp writer eager to make it big in Vienna. Interestingly, Martins is far from a traditional heroic character, lacking the courage and determination of the classic archetype, but compensating it with wit and a good heart. A good heart that could be his doom. As his childhood friend and the origin of the mystery, Harry Lime, the legendary Orson Welles portrays the opposite of Martins, a man so sure of a presence so big that dominates the screen even when he is not even there. The discovery of what happened to Lime will have great effects in Martins' character. As Lime's girlfriend Anna, Italian actress Alida Valli is not only beautiful, but also owner of an equally strong presence. This is another interesting element, as her character is certainly more dominant than Martins, and yet, still devoted to Lime.

In the supporting cast, the same high quality is found, particularly in the work of Trevor Howard, who plays Major Calloway, and Ernst Deutsch, who is the mischievous Baron Kurtz. Each one of them has more than a moment to shine, as the script grants them enough room to breath and grow. Stylish and irremediably mesmerizing, it's hard to say anything about "The Third Man" that it's not a praise, as everything from Greene's intelligent screenplay to the haunting score composed by Anton Karas (entirely on a zither) seems to be in the right place to make "The Third Man" a timeless classic. In fact, the film's high quality has resulted in the common error of attributing the film to Orson wells, though he has gone on record as saying that the film is entirely Reed's enterprise. And this is nowhere clearer than in the film's ending, which diverts from Greene's plan. Against the writer's protests, Reed (with the support of producers Korda and Selznick) made the change and the result was one of cinema's best finales for a film.

In the end, Carol Reed's "The Third Man", more than an influential film, it's a film that summarizes everything that cinema is. If Orson Welles' own "Citizen Kane" marked a revolutionary innovation in cinema language in 1941, Carol Reed's film shows a polished, distilled form of those innovations fully applied in its narrative style and visual design. In many ways, this 1949 film closes a decade of multiple changes as a true modern film. It's still bears the mark of a traditional thriller, but enriched by its noir aesthetic and its sly cynicism, "The Third Man" already points out the direction cinema would take in the future. Certainly, the title of "best film" is entirely subjective, but "The Third Man" has everything to support an argument for it.



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