Friday, July 31, 2015

At the Movies: "The Third Man"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Third Man
Carol Reed, 1949.

imbd: 8.3 (imdb 250: #107)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh

I watched and reviewed The Third Man in 2009 in The Great Movie project. Mrs.5000 and I watched it again this week on the big screen at the fabulous Laurelhurst Theater.

The Third Man is a crisp, smart, darkly funny movie, highly stylized but with elements of gritty realism. Filmed on location in postwar Vienna – itself a place of stark contrasts between cosmopolitan style and heaps of bombed-out rubble – it is a classic noir detective story without a proper detective.

Instead of a detective, we have an American pulp novelist named Holly Martins. He 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 in shady local intrigues, but persists doggedly despite not knowing, for instance, a lick of German. That’s a problem, in Vienna. The dialog is not subtitled, and throughout the film we are, along with Martins, immersed in a disorienting stream of foreign language.

The camera, too, helps us understand how out of his element Martins is. When we see him, or see the world from his point of view, the camera is often tilted at strange, disorienting angles. The people he meets are shot from so close up that the lens subtlety distorts their facial features, making them seem strange and alien. At night, the camera weaves through the twisting, half-ruined allies of Vienna, people appearing suddenly out of the darkness in vivid chiaroscuro. The movie's climax takes disorientation to its extreme, pitting characters in a chase through dark, maze-like sewers underneath the city.

Plot [more than usually spoiler-heavy]: Martins arrives in Vienna to find that a friend who had "a job" for him has just died in a car accident. He learns that the witnesses have contradictory stories and that the police were investigating his friend for racketeering, and he decides that he will investigate the situation and clear his friend's name. He enlists his late friend's lover as a reluctant interpreter; she will of course become his own love interest, but happily her story will not play out in a conventional or predictable way. Martins is hopeless as a detective – he makes about as much progress as you or I would, if we were to initiate an amateur investigation of organized crime on our first night in a town where we don’t speak the language.  Luckily for him, everyone can tell he’s too inept to be worth killing. When we eventually cut to the superbly filmed chase, we've have spent a long time scratching the surface of mystery and intrigue, and have earned our visceral thrills.

Like a lot of movies, The Third Man can be read as 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 as situations evolve.

Visuals: The use of a bombed-out city as the movie's set is both a bit crass and visually perfect. The set is, after all, the setting. 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 that remain heaped on every block.

The film’s extreme contrasts of dark and shadow 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. People keep trying to talk to other people whom they know don’t understand their language. Sparring over moral issues is often mumbled, and when people spout pieties there’s no trickery in the staging or soundtrack to make them seem noble.

Speaking of the soundtrack, it consists entirely of solo zither music. No, really. On one hand, this certainly helps give The Third Man a unique and distinctive personality. On the other hand, at theater volume, that zither was starting to get a little old by the final reel.

Prognosis: The Third Man is thoughtful, entertaining, idiosyncratic, and beautifully filmed. It deserves its spot on the late Roger Eberts’ “Great Movie” list.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

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