American writer Holly Martins is invited by his friend to visit him in Vienna. On arrival, his friend Harry Lime just died in a car accident. Martins starts an investigation to figure out what happened, and the accident may not be an accident at all.
A film noir, a real Hollywood classic by movie mastermind Orson Welles. It has like a 1000 points on IMDb and any other movie list.
I would give a spoiler alert, but I am also going to assume that it isn’t a surprise to modern movie viewers that Harry Lime’s accident wasn’t an accident at all, because that is how movies like these work. Orson Welles’s face is even on most posters and that already gives some things away. That gives me the freedom to talk about the most interesting scenes of the movie.
Harry Lime, the enigma. The whole first half of the movie builds up curiosity about this mysterious character. The longer Martins searches for the truth behind his disappearance, the stronger the effect of the eventual reveal of Harry. I guess that is the reason for the drawn-out first half of the movie. In some way I regret this because the first half didn’t grip me. I understand the function behind that part of the movie, but I didn’t think that it was emotionally involving.
This has partly to do with the actors. Main character Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, is your standard Hollywood charmer from that era. He fires his lines rapidly, but I didn’t get the impression that he was really upset with the loss of his best friend and he didn’t seem upset during his investigations. He was more involved with charming the lead lady. This acting style has a lot to do with what people wanted to see in movies at that time. In general, the movie went really fast, accompanied by some fiddle music that wouldn’t be out of place in a Guy Ritchie film, but it didn’t fit the atmosphere of The Third Man. I liked the Viennese side characters though.
I think that a large part of The Third Man’s iconic film status comes from its brilliant use of location. The film is shot in Vienna, and the backlit streets of nightly Vienna are stunning. We owe you one, Vienna. Don’t make me come down there and shoot pictures of your lovely buildings, and eat apfelstrudel. There was not enough eating of apfelstrudel in this movie.
Vienna is a grand, stately city with high blocks and narrow streets. It is a bit cold and distant like a stern moustache’d uncle with a twinkle of passion in his eyes, as if the city looks down on you but is moved by grand dreams. Just like Lime himself. Welles sprayed the streets with water and put lamps at strategic places to create beautiful compositions of black and white. A modern variant of that would be the ending of In Bruges (2008).
At one point, we do actually look down on the city’s inhabitants from the perspective of a ferris wheel. This is perfectly accompanied by Harry Lime’s speech about how he doesn’t care about the fates of individuals. It is one of the famous scenes from the second half of the film. Welles also plays with angles and makes the ferris wheel carriage swing to the left and right during the conversation. Other brilliant scenes are of course the reveal of Harry Lime, and the final chase through the city and the echoing sewers. Excellent use of backlit characters in brick tunnels. This, more than anything, created The Third Man’s success.
In the end, I am more inclined to rewatch individual scenes from the movie than the whole thing. It is technically brilliant and has some good lines to quote, but I had some trouble getting into it.