Monday, June 22, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Third Man"

The Third Man
Carol Reed, 1949

The Third Man is a crisp, smart, darkly funny movie that ranks highly among the black and white movies on the Great Movies list or any list, really. Filmed on location in the rubble of postwar Vienna, it is a moral drama about the loyalty owed to friends, lovers, and society in general, and about what happens when those loyalties contradict each other. Unlike the vast majority of movies that pose these kinds of questions, The Third Man does not offer its characters any easy answers. As in real life, they have to continuously decide where their loyalties lie.

The lead character of the movie is courageous, persistent, and well-intentioned; also reckless, naive, and a bit dim. He wades boldly into dangerous situations and is soon in way over his head, but persists doggedly despite not knowing a lick of the local language. Much of the dialog is in German, which is left unsubtitled. This constant stream of foreign language helps underscore the protagonist’s disorientation, as does the camera's weaving trips through the twisting, half-ruined allies of Vienna. The movie's climax takes disorientation to its extreme, pitting characters in a chase through the dark, maze-like sewers underneath the city. It is rare for the central figure in a drama to be portrayed as hapless, and rare too that we are made to share some of a character's sense of confusion. I found The Third Man refreshing on both scores.

Plot: An American man arrives in Vienna, to find that the friend who had "a job" for him has died in a car accident. Learning that witnesses to the accident have contradictory stories and that the police were investigating his friend for some kind of unspecified racket, he decides that he will look into the situation in order to clear his friend's name. He enlists the friend's lover to be his interpreter and, in a magnificent feat of acting, she manages to keep a straight face through his increasingly spectacular displays of naïveté. There are some genuinely surprising revelations along the way, and when we finally cut to the superbly filmed chase, we've had enough of mystery and intrigue and have earned our visceral thrills.

Visuals: Two things stand out here. First, the use of a bombed-out city as the movie's set, which is both a bit crass and visually perfect. The action takes place around, and sometimes literally careens among, a Viennese population still completely freaked out by the devastation of the war and the heaps of rubble still heaped on every block.

Secondly, the film is uniquely lit in extreme contrast of dark and shadow. This creates a number of memorable images. There are several instances where shadow is used ingeniously to create suspense, sometimes ending in surprise, sometimes (as in a famous scene involving a balloon vender) in a clever anticlimax.

Dialog: The dialog of The Third Man is unusually realistic for a film of this era. People interrupt each other and talk over the top of each other and say things that nobody pays any attention to. Remarkably, people trying to speak a language they don't know very well speak in a plausible fashion. (Usually, books and movies make mincemeat out of this, having characters effortlessly speaking complex English sentences but then reverting back to say things like "ja," "nein," "herr," "schoen," and "schlecht," which are literally the very last concepts you would ever have trouble with in a second language.)

Prognosis: The Third Man is a great movie! It's thoughtful and entertaining, and I'm recommending it to anyone who doesn't actively dislike B&W.

It would make a great companion piece with Judgment at Nuremburg, another movie set in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Judgment at Nuremburg didn't make the Great Movies list, but probably should have; I'll file a concurring opinion with Chance's review, here.


sister jen said...

I'm so glad you liked this film--it's a favorite of mine, and (more importantly) as you say, an outstanding example of noir film and of effective use of set and of the camera (all those canted angles--sometimes it's hard to tell if it's the camera, or the streets of Vienna, or the shadows, or just what that takes off in all those oblique angles--adding to the disorientation).

Besides, who can resist Joseph Cotten?

Also, you know, Orson Welles. And, you know, Carol Reed. And Graham Greene. Jeez, it would have been something if the film HADN'T worked!

Elaine said...

I like this film a lot, too. I loved the zither music, the black-and-white, and the chase. I didn't think Cotten's character was dumb, just a regular guy unexpectedly caught in a mystery. I think any of us would be just as slow on the uptake...unless, that is, you go around alert and suspicious all the time.
I lived in West Germany 1951-54, and one could drive literally for miles and see nothing but rubble, bombed-out buildings, and wreckage. Everything was kind of one color--dusty tan. People had used whatever they could--the fence behind our apartment in Frankfurt was a collage of shutter/door/cabinet/window blind pieces.... Instead of dramatic or crass, I thought the sets were realistic and evocative of the times. It took decades for the "clean-up." Outside Munich there are towering cone-shaped hills; now grassy, they are actually composed of rubble, hauled endless barrow-load by barrow-load.

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: The reason that you found the sets realistic and evocative is that the movie was filmed in postwar Vienna -- I meant "the use of a bombed-out city as the movie's set" quite literally. Some people would consider using the scene of so much misery as the stage for an entertainment in poor taste; it's not something that bothers me personally, though. I DO think it's dramatic, though!

It's hard to judge the intelligence of people in movies, because we know that they're in a movie and they don't. You can make a case that Holly Martins is a perfectly sharp guy, but just out of his depth in an alien context. What makes me think he's a yutz is that, even though it should be perfectly obvious he's out of his depth, he forges ahead as though he was back home in Iowa (or wherever). It's hard for me not to think that Graham Greene would have intended this to seem not only a bit thick, but also as a particularly American form of thickness.