Whenever anyone talks about classic film noir, this is usually the first film that comes to mind. Whilst it is not the first noir, many of the traditional elements associated with noir became solidified with this film, mainly the harsh lighting and the dutch angles. But with any film as influential as this one, there is always the possibility that when you actually see it, it doesn’t live up to expectations. I’m happy to say though that The Third Man easily lives up to the expectations.
The film concerns pulp fiction writer Holly Martins, who comes to Vienna after being offered a job by his old friend Harry Lime. When Martins gets to Vienna, he finds out that Lime died a few days previously and he thinks something is fishy about the death, especially considering the military was after Lime for operating a black market ring. His suspicions get enhanced when he finds out a third man was present when Lime was killed, one that the other witnesses to the death hadn’t told him about, raising the mystery of what happened to Lime. Now the main thing that works about this film is the mystery. There are so many really well executed twists and turns in the plot, none of which feel like they come out of left field. This creates a great deal of tension throughout the film which helps make it so engaging to watch. Furthermore, the tonal shifts in the film, mainly related to the more comedic elements with Martins being asked to give a lecture about his books, don’t feel out of place. These scenes are really useful in setting up the character of Martins and his devotion to the case at the expense of everything else. There’s also a lot of moral grey area that’s really well handled, particularly regarding Lime’s racket, especially as we find out what exactly he was dealing in. Here though comes a major problem, not with the film but with cultural osmosis. For most of the film the audience is meant to think that Harry Lime is dead so that the reveal that he’s alive is a genuine twist. However, since the role is so iconic and so engrained with Orson Welles, this twist has been spoiled, meaning it didn’t have the impact it originally intended. However, this is not a criticism of the film, in fact I think the fact that this element, in particular Welles’ performance, are so iconic shows the power this film has.
The performances meanwhile are excellent. The obvious standout here is Orson Welles as Harry Lime. He shows off the amoral, conniving, greedy aspect of the character, someone who could only thrive in the post-war environment. However, he also shows this great deal of charm, letting you know why so many people would be willing to trust Lime and how he was able to build up the racket he was. Very few actors could have pulled all of this off, especially considering Lime is only on screen for 10 minutes, but Welles nails it and I’d say it’s up there with Citizen Kane as one of his best performances. The other performances are great as well. Joseph Cotton as Martins does a great job showing his desire to find out what happened to Lime, his distrust of everyone from Lime’s friends to the military police and shows his moral conflict over whether to help the police capture Lime at the end of the film. Alida Valli meanwhile does a great job as Anna Schmidt, Lime’s girlfriend. We see the love she has for Lime clearly and how she’s transplanting that love onto Martins, and her willingness to support Lime at any cost, especially at the end of the film, capped off with a brilliantly executed final shot. She also shows how invaluable she is to the case, being able to translate German for Martins since he doesn’t speak the language. We also see how the partition of Vienna affects the citizens through her since she is from Czechoslovakia but had Lime fake papers to say she’s Austrian so she doesn’t get shipped to the Russian sector, showing the damage of the partition on an individual basis whilst establishing Schmidt’s love for Lime. Ernst Deutsch and Siegfried Breuer do great work as Lime’s friends, showing both why Lime was so willing to trust them, along with a quite sleazy quality to them which lets you understand why Martins is so suspicious of them. Trevor Howard does strong work as Major Calloway, showing his obsession with capturing Lime, being willing to use any dirty trick to find anything about Lime, whilst also showing his frustration with the Russian military police and some guilt over what he does in relation to Anna. There’s good comic relief from Bernard Lee, who’s character is a fan of Martins’ books, and Wilfrid Hyde-White as the person who gets Martins to do a lecture, providing him with a chance to stay in Vienna to fulfil his investigation. This is a really stellar cast, all of whom add to the great noir feel of this film.
On a technical level, this film is incredibly impressive. The use of the bombed out architecture of Vienna gives the film a great look and adds to the overall atmosphere of the film, making you understand how the black market could operate and how easily Harry Lime could hide from the authorities. The strong location work is best seen with the use of the Vienna sewers at the end of the film, the maze structure of them, combined with the great lighting, creating a very tense, engaging climax. Speaking of the use of shadows, their usage here is some of the best I’ve seen. So much of the plot relies on shadows and if they weren’t filmed correctly then the entire film could fall apart, especially in relation to Harry Lime, but they’re not. So much of the atmosphere is built from the mixing of the bombed out buildings combined with the shadows and this adds to the tension throughout. The only element of the technicals I wasn’t impressed with as much was the music. Now the music in the film isn’t bad, but it doesn’t fit at all with the tone of the movie and as such drew me out of the experience a fair few times.
Overall, it’s easy to see why this is often cited as one of the greatest film noirs. The mystery aspect of the film, whilst diluted due to cultural osmosis, is still incredibly compelling, the performances are excellent, particularly Welles at the top of his game, and the style of the film, the dutch angles, the shadows and the use of Vienna’s architecture, is still influential. This is the definitive film noir.
My Rating: 5/5