Movie Critique - The Third Man

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A film portraying confused ethics in an already devastated world; hearts put at stake; terrific cinematography with haunting zither music; complex murder and mystery plot with brilliant star cast and filming.

The Third Man is a 1949 British film noir directed and produced by Sir Carol Reed released by London Films. Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick co-produced. The film constituted of two American stars - Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles - a plethora of non-American actors including Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, Wilfrid Hyde-White among others. 

Film is set in postwar Vienna. Holly Martins (portrayed by Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna from America to work for his friend Harry Lime (portrayed by Orson Welles), only to find him killed in a traffic accident. Martins has suspicions about Lime's death and starts his own investigation leading to some surprising turns and heartbreaking twists.

Screenplay for the film was written by Graham Greene. The use of harsh lighting, distorted angles and black-and-white atmosphere by cinematographer Robert Krasker marked a new turn in film noir. No wonder he won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography - Black and White. The opening credits are rolled over the strings of a zither with it’s music playing in the background. The film opens with narration by Joseph Cotten who continue to narrate all through the film. 

Zither music by Anton Karas that is played in the background beginning from the opening credits till the end is haunting and remains in your mind days after you have watched the movie. In fact the entire film had this zither music as the only background score. It was released as The Third Man Theme, a single, in 1949/50. This made Karas an international fame overnight.

The postwar environment in the movie shows real emotions of what people felt back then - tired and exhausted with the impacts of war; cynical mentality; tendency to see the worst at every turn; and the daily struggle to make ends meet. 

Cotten and Welles are polar opposites in their character portrayals, with a bond between them that keeps thinning out as the film proceeded. Their characters, Martins and Lime, respectively were well presented, with raw emotions, showing their contrasting natures - one with a compassionate heart and a brave mind; the other who sees world with a different lens, cynical and a border-line sociopath.

Both Cotten and Welles had a strong friendship and knew each other from the days of CBS Radio program The American School of Air. He even was the best man at Welles and Rita Hayworth's wedding. This bromance comes through in their acting as well in the film.

Cotten is famed for his several radio appearances all through his career, along-side successful theater and film roles. I have watched quite a few of his films and heard a lot of old time radio shows on podcasts in which he acted. I was impressed by him in both media.

Alida's Anna Schmidt was a bit foolish and exhausted at the same time with everything around her. Including the wrong person she loved. She doesn’t want to get out of that dark depressing world of her even when opportunity knocks, and stubbornly trudges along snubbing at it.

Trevor Howard as Major Calloway gave a phenomenal performance. Along with a plethora of various actors of multiple nations, the film certainly is unique and made a mark in the film noir genre. I remember Wilfrid Hyde-White for his role as Tanner the butler in the 1972 TV film Dagger of the Mind for the Season 2 Episode 4 of TV series Columbo. Here he played the part of Crabbin, who heads a book club. 

Greene had written a novella before writing the screenplay for the film. As with any book or novella that gets adapted to screen, there are several differences from the original novella including the ending. Greene had a happy ending in his novella. Despite Greene's objections Reed went with the current ending - Anna Schmidt walking away from Holly Martins without a glance, a heartless and callous portrayal of the character in the end. And this ending proved to be successful in the end.

Greene also provided some powerful dialogues in the movie along with some support from Welles and producers Reed and Selznick in some scenes. The most famous Swiss Cuckoo Clock speech in the film begins with the scene where Martins and Lime meet on the giant Ferris wheel, Wiener Riesenrad, and ends with this final line. It shows the harsh cynicism of Welles' character Lime at how he sees the world and justifies his ill doings. 

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 five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

The film's central theme actually is not about finding the alleged "third man" or solving the death of Lime; but about the betrayal between two male friends; about the way some benefitted out of the postwar situation at the cost of so many lives; and about a foolish heart falling in love with the wrong man and unable to let go.

A film portraying confused ethics in an already devastated world; hearts put at stake; terrific cinematography with haunting zither music; complex murder and mystery plot with brilliant star cast and filming. What more one wants in a film noir! Absolute brilliant movie not to be missed.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. A 60-minute radio adaptation by Theatre Guild on Air was broadcasted on January 7, 1951 with Cotten reprising his role. I have heard this on the Old Time Radio podcasts quite recently.

b. Lux Radio Theatre did two 60-minute radio adaptations on April 9, 1951 with Cotten again reprising his role; and on February 8, 1954 with Ray Milland as Martins.

c. Although Harry Lime is killed at the end of the film, a British radio drama series titled The Adventures of Harry Lime, was created as prequel to the film The Third Man, centering on all the adventures Harry Lime with Welles reprising the role. However the radio Lime was portrayed more as an anti-hero with less cynicism and less nefarious nature of the character. I have heard several episodes of this drama series on the Old Time Radio podcasts.

d. The film currently still plays in Vienna's oldest theatre Burgkino, three times a day. I remember one of the Indian Hindi language films playing for almost twenty years in one theater before it was finally had it’s final show. The 1995 Hindi language romance film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (= The Big Hearted One takes the Bride) was shown at Martha Mandir cinema in Mumbai since 1995 until February 15, 2015 when it had it’s last show.

e. Vienna has canal tours called Der Dritte Man -Tour which visit the exact places where the scenes of Harry Lime being chased by the police were shot.

f. Recognize Bond's superior M in Sergeant Paine in the film? Bernard Lee who portrayed Paine was Bond's superior M in the first eleven Bond films starting from the 1962 Dr. No till 1979 Moonraker.

g. You can also see Robert Brown in his film debut as one of the British Military policeman in the sewer scene. He succeeded Lee as M in four films that followed Moonraker - 1983 Octopusy; 1985 A View to a Kill; 1987 The Living Daylights and 1989 License to Kill.

h. The Ferris Wheel in the film is also seen in the 1987 James Bond's spy thriller The Living Daylights. We also see the balloon seller scene replicated in that film. 

i. The Ferris Wheel Jesse and Celine ride in the 1995 romantic drama film Before Sunrise, the first in the trilogy, is also same one as seen in this film. Jesse also mentions The Third Man in his dialogues.

j. The people who played the part of the Vienna police department patrolling the underground sewer system are actual police officers from the department.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. The book and dog change positions in the hands of "Baron" Kutrz (portrayed by Ernst Deutsch) when he is explaining the accident scene of Harry Lime to Holly Martins. 

b. Check the nude picture behind Martins with the pubic hair shown. Wonder how it passed the Production Code at that time.

c. You can see a double decker London bus in the background when Martins, Paine and Calloway are driving in a jeep at night in Vienna.

d. The balloons that the balloon guy sells are all printed. But the scene that shows Paine buying balloon from him is a plain balloon. Indicating that both scenes were filmed in different locations and merged later.


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