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The Third Man, UK 1949

Posted by keith1942 on July 29, 2015

Third man ferris wheel

This classic film is being re-issued as part of the Orson Welles Centenary celebrations. Certainly Welles, oozing both his onscreen charm but also his shadowy otherness, dominates the film as Harry Lime. It contains some of his most memorable dialogue: his aside on the cuckoo clock is one of the most oft-quoted lines in English-language cinema.

But the film is also a tribute to the talents of a number of fine, mainly British, filmmakers. The director was Carol Reed is often dismissed by the appellation ‘metteur en scène’: a phrase that stresses reliance on collaborators as opposed to the supposed dominating talent of the ‘auteur’. In fact many of the great films depend exactly on such a constellation of talents, and this is especially true of British cinema where many a final film is much more than just the sum of its parts.

The film has a fine script by Graham Greene, adapted from his own short story. Certainly Reed’s direction benefits from the magisterial black and white cinematography of Robert Krasker. And his work depends to a degree on Vincent Korda’s atmospheric art direction. Both are ably served by the editing of Oswald Haffenrichter. And there is the inspired choice of Anton Karas’ music: his zither is as famous as dialogue of Orson Welles.

The cast, both leading and supporting players, is ‘pitch perfect’. Alongside Welles Joseph Cotton turns in one of his finest performances as Holly Martin. And Alida Valli is hauntingly beautiful and tragic as Anna Then there are Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee with brief but memorable appearances from Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger among others. It is the combination of all these talents that makes the occupied and divided post-war Vienna so believable. This is a perfect gem of a movie.

the-third-man holly and anna

Reviewing it I enjoyed the witty and ironic early sequences in the film. This is very much down to Greene’s skilful script. But the players give just the right emphasis to the lines or placement: as with the recurring comments on Holly Martin’s literary output. I assume that the seminar with the Cultural Re-education Section’s ‘little meeting’ allowed Greene to air a few prejudices.

The noir landscape of the city is brilliant. Light and shadow not only advance the plot: as with the first appearance of Harry Lime. They create this world of chaos, corruption and criminality, which threaten the nominal hero and heroine.

The last stages of the film are more sombre but have even greater resonance. The underground sewer system provides the labyrinth, which is a recurring metaphor in film noir. Here Holly [the prince] hunts down the monster [Lime]. But as so often in the noir world, the death of the monster provides little relief or release.

Third Man lime

Then we have the cemetery. In the original Cretan version the princess [Anna] provides the means for the hero’s safe entry and exit from the labyrinth. But here Anna resolutely refuses to aid Holly. Thus the long take as she passes by the passive Holly leaving the audience to speculate on the fate or either character. This makes Holly a passive character in comparison to Lime. Another aspect of the irony that suffuses this film.

I revisited the film on a 2k DCP screening; both the dynamic contrast and the definition, especially in longer shots for the latter, seemed inferior to 35mm prints. There is a useful article on this version at:

http://uk.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1184436/why-does-the-restoration-of-the-third-man-look-weird

 

 

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