The Third Man
(United Kingdom, 1949)
Today, it's virtually impossible to see The Third Man for the first time and not know about the movie's central twist (which is revealed in both the plot summary and full review, so the spoiler-phobic should beware). The reality is that it doesn't much matter. I knew the truth about Harry Lime before my initial viewing of The Third Man, and that knowledge did not diminish my appreciation of the motion picture. It has been my experience that most motion picture lovers are enamored of film noir, and there are few better examples of the genre available. The Third Man belongs up there with the best of them. One of the reasons is certainly the black-and-white cinematography, which is among the best of its kind ever committed to celluloid, but there's a great deal more to it than that. Bad film noir seems dated soon after it has been released. Good film noir stands up well to the passage of time. But films like The Third Man seemingly get better as the years go by. The word "timeless" doesn't do it justice. It's possible to admire a universally recognized "great film" without really liking it. (I know more than a few people who feel that way about Citizen Kane), but The Third Man is one of those acknowledged masterpieces that viewers admire and like. And, without hesitation, I admit to being firmly entrenched in that non-exclusive camp.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Joseph Cotton is Holly Martins, a relatively na´ve American novelist who arrives in post-war Vienna to take a job offered to him by his longtime friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When Holly arrives, however, he learns that Harry has recently died in a tragic traffic accident. At the funeral, he meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British member of the local military police, who tells Holly that he should turn around immediately and go home. But Holly is bitten by the curiosity bug and smitten by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a mysterious mourner at Harry's funeral. He thinks there's more to the story of Harry's death than is initially obvious, and he begins his own investigation. He soon learns that there are differing accounts of what happened that day, and that one of the witnesses - the "third man" to remove Harry's body from the street - cannot be found. In fact, several of the other witnesses deny his existence. With help from Anna and in the face of stern opposition from Calloway, Holly pushes on with his investigation until he discovers that Harry's death was an illusion. The man Holly once called a close friend is very much alive, and the mastermind of a horrifying fraud that has replaced good penicillin with bad, resulting in widespread death and disease.
Many critics consider The Third Man to be the best British post-World War II film noir. It has all the right ingredients: an engaging, twisty storyline (written by Graham Greene); one of the most diabolical and charismatic villains ever to grace the screen; crisp, innovative directing (by the underrated Carol Reed); a score (by Anton Karas) that it as unforgettable as it is unconventional; and cinematography (by Robert Krasker) that uses the black-and-white medium to its fullest. For lovers of film noir, The Third Man is unquestionably a must-see - one of the masterpieces of a genre that has contained everything from milestone motion pictures to low-budget potboilers. Due in large part to the meticulousness of those involved, the movie is virtually without flaw. It's a standout from an era in which there were many great films, and a blueprint for countless second-rate copycat thrillers to come afterwards. The Third Man manages the laudable feat of combining popular entertainment with artistic achievement, making it an engaging and compelling viewing experience for nearly any potential audience member, regardless of his or her background and outlook.
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