Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Third Man Is A Constantly Riveting Feature That Brilliant Subverts Norms of the Noir Genre


One of the many wonderful things about watching The Third Man for the first time was discovering it belong to one of my favorite subgenres of world cinema, post-World War II movies. I am utterly fascinated by non-American features that explore life directly in the wake of World War II, it's a perspective that was never covered in my public education experience and getting to explore the various perspectives of foreign countries in the wake of this worldwide conflict through the lens of cinema has been eye-opening. Bicycle Thieves, Tokyo Story, Drunken Angel, so many good stories have been told about people trying to move on with their lives in the wake of all the events of World War II and The Third Man is one of the most thrilling entries in this subgenre.

The post-World War II setting of The Third Man is immediately established in the opening narration, which casually explains to the viewer that Vienna, in the wake of World War II, is now divided into various sections each belonging to different world powers. There's clearly a lot going on in Vienna right now but American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) has come to the country for a simpler means, he only wants to reunite with an old friend by the name of Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But once he gets there, he learns that Lime is dead! A sorrowful Martins is immediately suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Lime's death and proceeds to start up his own investigation into Lime's demise that leads him into conflict with all kinds of established powers in Vienna.

James Naramore's book More Than Night makes note of how American film noirs frequently depicted American characters traveling to either foreign locales or domestic recreations of foreign cultures that allowed these American individuals to engage in their wildest impulses without regard to the people or culture that live there. The Third Man, a noir film made in the United Kingdom, twists these recurring aspect of American noirs on its head a bit by having its protagonist be an American who feels he can walk into Vienna and be able to run the joint like one of the protagonists in the Western pulp novels he writes, but the situation, to quote Rebecca Bunch, "is a lot more nuanced than that".

Instead of constantly uncovering exciting new clues or indulging in delightful vices, Martins basically keeps throwing gas on fires in every one of his attempts to get answers behind the death of his friend Lime. For example, conversations with a former flame of Lime's, Anna (Alida Valli), only get the poor woman's fake passport discovered by police authorities. Everything in Vienna is volatile enough already without Martins strutting about like a Sam Spade-esque cock of the walk. Lots of riveting tension gets generated by the presence of Martins in such tense circumstances while the performances of Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard, playing Major Calloway, deliver strong performances both individually and in their scenes playing off one another.

The already fascinating plot of The Third Man, penned by Graham Greene, takes a thrilling twist midway through revealing that Lime is alive and well that totally flip who the viewer and Martins thought were the established good guys and bad guys in this scenario. The manner in which Lime totally upends this movie's world is reinforced by the riveting performance given by Orson Welles, a performer who chooses to portray Lime as both a guy wistful for his friendship with Martins and also clearly a man far too emotionally detached from the people around him. Welles gives Lime moments of warmth that make it clear why Martins was once friends with him but he's also able to immediately make Lime a threatening presence that sends chills up one's spine.

The Third Man starts up as a set-up for a story about an American man trying to find answers in a foreign land and instead sends Martins on a journey drenched with tragedy that challenges his notion of if he even knew who his best friend really was in the first place. It's a captivating tale that director Carol Reed brings to life in an appropriately harrowing manner. Reed doesn't soft-pedal on the morose nature of the proceedings and similar to how well director Elaine May's dedication to grimness aided Mikey & Nicky, Carol Reed's commitment to an ambiance fueled by uncertain dread is a critical reason why The Third Man is so consistently engrossing, particularly in its masterful climax set in the Vienna sewers.

This dingy location is where Lime tries to evade authorities one last time and both the direction and cinematography of this sequence (the latter element done by Robert Krasker) vividly realize the claustrophobic nature of these sewers. Each intricately composed frame set in this environment makes you feel like you're as trapped in these sewers as Harry Lime! It's a climax that ends on an appropriately grim note that sees Martins killing Lime, the very man whose death he had previously been fervently trying to solve. Shortly thereafter, the movie ends with a moment where Martins tries to walk over to Anna in an attempt to romantically reconcile with her. In a normal movie, such a moment would conclude with the two passionately embracing and leave the audience with a note of happiness. But just as The Third Man upends the traditional nature of American men coming to foreign countries solely to engage in excessive debauchery, so too does the ending of The Third Man subvert expectations. Anna ignores Martins completely, leaving The Third Man to end on a note of quietly realized lonely anguish. It's a devastating moment for Martins but given the tone of the overall motion picture, it's the perfect way for The Third Man to conclude.

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