Old Classics?… Newly Reviewed | “The Third Man” (1949)

© Nancee E. Lewis / Nancee Lewis Photography.
Editor Note: Gini has another Old Classic film from her Turner Classic Movie Collection watching. Since Atlanta is home to Turner Classic Movies it is only right that Gini should be reviewing them with her view of the world.

What can it be this time?

Gini is tackling what Turner Classic Movies calls a noir classic with 1949’s The Third Man.


The Third Man

By Gini Koch

The Third Man is set in Vienna, right after WWII. The city is bombed out, occupied (there are four distinct factions running it – American, British, Russian, and German, I think, at any rate), and filled with black marketeers. Into this comes hack/Western/dime/pulp/genre novelist (take your pick) Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) who’s come from America because his old school friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), is giving our penniless writer a job. Supposedly.

Only when Martins arrives, he discovers that Harry’s been hit by a car and killed. Or has he?
Creepy friends of Harry’s keep on giving Martins conflicting information, a British officer, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) tells him to go home, and Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is attractive and appears to need help, so Martins decides he’s going to stick around and find out what’s really happened. Of course, trouble ensues.

Martins gets drunk a lot, blunders around a lot, causes other people to get killed, and tries to be a hero. But this is a noir, so a hero he really cannot be.

The big discrepancy is that Harry’s “friends” are telling Martins that two of them carried Harry’s body out of the street. But another eye witness saw three men doing that. So, who was the third man? Martins’ efforts to find him drive the story.

He also desperately tries to get Anna interested in him, but, no matter what she says, she’s still clearly in love with Harry.

Of course, the truth comes out – Harry was a racketeer involved in selling diluted penicillin to hospitals, which resulted in horrible deaths and such, so he’s a lowlife. But he’s also probably Martins’ best friend in the world. What’s a broke novelist to do?

There’s a really funny scene, particularly if you are or know an author, where Martins is a guest lecturer at the British Literary Guild, but otherwise the humor is low, though there’s some running jokes about Martins’ books and he has some sarcastic repartee with various characters.

The film is in black and white and it looks great. To give you a feeling of disorientation and outsiderness, nothing’s translated. People are speaking German and Russian and whatever and Martins has no idea what they’re saying. You don’t, either, unless you speak those languages, but you get the idea of what’s going on, just as he does. It’s a great technique and works for this movie.

There are some good chase scenes, including one in the Vienna sewers that was clearly the basis for the sewer scene in The Fugitive (1993). This movie is almost 60 years old, so I’m going to mention a spoiler… Harry’s alive and has faked his death – he IS the third man. The reveal of this, the technique and the way it’s written and filmed, is really well done and rightly considered a classic. The tensest scene happens on a boxcar Ferris wheel, where you don’t know if Martins is going to get shoved out of the box by Harry or not and was probably my favorite scene in the movie.

The story and screenplay were written by Graham Greene – he wrote the novel so that he could have it to create the screenplay – but the best line is Harry Lime’s, written by Welles and said at the end of the Ferris wheel scene: “In Italy for thirty 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.”

For me, I think I’d have loved this more if Welles had written all of it. I’ve never been a huge fan of Greene’s, and this movie didn’t change my mind.

Ben Mankowitz couldn’t say enough good things about the ingenious score. I found it tedious. The only instrument used is a zither, but the score seemed to be one song, over and over, just done at different speeds. Plus the zither made the score sound too peppy to me, something that noir shouldn’t be.

The pacing is deliberate. It’s slow but not boring, and it definitely builds, though some scenes really do go on too long. The ending scene is considered a classic for noir as well.
The hero of this movie is the Major. He’s the good person actually forcing Martins to be the better version of himself. I would have liked more time with the Major than we got. But I’d have liked more time with Harry than we got, too.

I didn’t loathe this like D.O.A. but I also didn’t love it like Strangers on a Train. This is considered the best British movie ever made in some circle, and I just don’t see it. It’s good, but it’s not great. Just like Holly Martins.

3 stars out of 5

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