The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Third Man (1949/UK/dir. Carol Reed) appeared at #15 on my original list.
What it is • "I never knew the Vienna before the war," a cheerful narrator informs us, shortly before disappearing from the film altogether. It's that kind of movie. The music - starting even before this fast-paced opening montage, with the image of a zither playing under the credits - is defiantly incongrous (quite a bit more on that in a moment) with the shadowy streets onscreen and the murky intrigues of the story. Our hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) isn't much of a hero at all, an American abroad in a land whose pernicious complications he doesn't understand; the film itself seems to hold him in contempt even as it accepts him as our guide. The flashy title character, Harry Lime, is dead when the film begins and Orson Welles' much-celebrated role in the movie is little more than a cameo in terms of screentime (though boy do those handful of minutes pack a punch). The Third Man is very British in sensibility and attitude, as crisp and curt as Reed and writer Graham Greene could manage, but the two most important characters are American, and this may be the greatest noir, a very American form. Francois Truffaut once grumbled that British cinema was a contradiction in terms but The Third Man is as visually rich as any Hollywood feature with several of the most striking images in cinema history. My favorite is the final shot, as a figure approaches from the horizon, flanked by two symmetrical rows of trees, while leaves flitter down from the sky at random. Moving on a narrative level, striking as pure pictorialism, this single take also evokes the flavor of the entire movie, mixing meticulous order (the trees) with spontaneous energy (the leaves), leavening its air of inevitable fate (the long walk) with bracing dashes of ironic surprise (the unbroken stride, straight past the camera, leaving Holly to smoke his cigarette in bittersweet resignation).
Why I like it •
Here again, probably for the last time, is a favorite film which didn't really click for me on first viewing. I remember exactly when and how I saw it. Freshman year of high school, as part of cross-country practice, we had a 24-hour marathon where we ran a mile around the track in relays throughout the day and overnight; when it wasn't our turn we could sit inside the locker-room in the gym and watch videos. Many of the selections were action films and stoner comedies - me being me, I brought a bunch of selections that only I was interested in. The '98 AFI Top 100 had come out that summer, and while it's been much maligned by cinephiles ever since, it encouraged me to watch many classics for the first time. One of the films I rented that night was The Third Man and I was initially baffled by its off-kilter vibe. A few things didn't gibe: Valli's stern demeanor wasn't what I expected from a noir heroine; the canted angles seemed too pronounced; and especially - especially - the unusual zither soundtrack threw me way off. It wasn't moody, it wasn't dark, it was jaunty and energetic and just in no way fit what I had expected. I'm not sure when I saw the film again, but I know I liked it more the second time. And more and more every time I watched it. A half-dozen years later, I loved this movie for the very reasons I had initially disliked it. Above all, that zither...I used to listen to the title track over and over for inspiration when I was trying to come up with movie ideas and what I appreciated was exactly that incongruity. One of the important lessons I've soaked up is that tension makes a movie, and the discrepancy between this music and the shadowy world of Harry Lime not only gives The Third Man an extra edge, it echoes the film's central contrast, managing to evoke both the cavalier world-weariness of the Brits and the unprepared innocence of Holly Martins (or maybe I'm stretching things, and its wise professionalism corresponds much better with the former than the latter). I even got to watch the film in Vienna, although the highlight was really the documentary they played beforehand: the print of the main feature had become so rundown that it was filled with splices, ruining the effect of that final memorable shot. Oh well. If The Third Man taught me anything, it was not to put too much stock in romanticized expectations - look at what you're given with clear eyes, and relish what you can. So long, Holly.
More from me • I reviewed the film as part of my "Big Ones" series in 2011, focusing on the themes (as I haven't really done here) and examining it in light of existentialism (among other elements). A clip appears at 6:30 in "Noir and Naturalism", a chapter of my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".
How you can see it • Good luck - you can download it on iTunes and it can be rented on Google Play but to my surprise, the film is available almost nowhere else. The DVD has disappeared from Netflix, it's not streaming on Hulu or Fandor, and it's not on YouTube. The Criterion blu-ray and DVD are out of print, though used copies can be found - perhaps at your local library?
What do you think? • Did the film click for you, or did it take some getting used to? Which other British noirs do you think can stand next to The Third Man? Do you believe Holly did the right thing - whose moral code, of the four on display, do you find most convincing?
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Yesterday: Meshes of the Afternoon (#16)
Tomorrow: Taxi Driver (#14)