Monday, 5 June 2017

The Third Man (1949)

Fig 1 - The Third Man Poster
Directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man tells the story of a low-level novelist named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) who travels to post-war Vienna when his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) informs him of a work placement. Upon arrival, Holly discovers that Lime has been hit by a truck and has subsequently died. At his funeral, Holly meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who informs him of Lime's criminal activities in the business of distributing supplies of much-needed penicillin. Holly then begins to investigate the scene of the murder, taking eyewitness accounts to fully understand the mystery behind Lime's death, as evidence suggests that it may have been deliberate. However, only two figures were reported at the scene of the crime, leading Holly to question exactly who was 'the third man'?

With a film-noir pastiche at the core of Robert Krasker's cinematography, The Third Man offers an array of visual delights that manipulate shadow and contrast light and dark to communicate various atmospheric moods. In addition, an extensive use of Dutch angles from the outset give the film an uneasy tone that suggests the audience ought to suspect everything and everyone. It is sometimes used obscurely, though a scene in which (spoilers) Holly meets with Lime on a ferris-wheel proves particularly telling of the narrative direction to come, as the camera subtly rotates it's way through every shot. Furthermore, the rubble-coated cityscape made for an interesting backdrop to the investigation, which often found characters passing by beautiful sculptures carved into pillars and the next moment sliding down gargantuan mounds of brick.

Fig 2 - The Third Man - Holly Martins
As far as the story goes, I was reminded somewhat of The Maltese Falcon (1941) in it's pacing, though I found the character of Holly Martin appealing enough in his role as a faux-detective who seemed genuinely bereaved at his friend's passing. That said, I never settled into the mystery as much as I would have liked and found myself questioning exactly where to shift my focus in the story. Lime's criminal actions are only condemned by Holly once he is exposed to the suffering it has caused, which would have been more of a gut-punch had the film developed their backstory as friends to some degree. It is often an interesting reveal when a much-discussed character finally materialises on-screen, however I just didn't find myself overwhelmed by Lime's less-than-enigmatic return.

Overall, in spite of some great visuals and central performances by Welles and Cotten, the film felt a little predictable for my taste. It's never fun to downplay a 'classic', but I refuse to believe I have some kind of tin-ear for detective dramas as some of my all-time favourites spawn directly from the genre. Perhaps I have desensitised myself at this point. Ultimately I found The Third Man to be somewhat void of the 'thrills' the genre offers up at it's best and (even if it was one of the first to do so) never felt as captivating as it looked.

Fig. 1 The Third Man Poster (1949) From: The Third Man - Directed by: Carol Reed

Fig. 2 The Third Man Screenshot (1949) From: The Third Man - Directed by: Carol Reed

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