Monday, September 01, 2014

'The Third Man' Was One of the Best Film Noirs Ever Made

"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Harry Lime (Orson Welles)
American Film Institute's #37 movie villain

All my life, I have heard that "Citizen Kane" is the greatest movie ever made.

But, apparently, some people think "The Third Man," which premiered on Sept. 2, 1949, is the greatest movie ever made. Well, one of them, anyway. And Orson Welles starred in both.

While there was no mistaking Welles' role in "Citizen Kane," it was kind of hard to figure out the part he played in "Third Man" until more than halfway through. See, up to that point in the movie, the assumption everyone made was that Welles' character, Harry Lime, had recently died. There had been a funeral and everything.

The guy with the most screen time was Welles' friend, a writer played by Joseph Cotten (who also appeared in "Citizen Kane"). He showed up in postwar Vienna planning to work for Welles — only to learn Welles' character recently died after being struck by a car while crossing the street.

But was that really what happened? That, as film critic Roger Ebert observed, is "the engine that drives the plot."

Cotten was told that a mysterious third man helped two other men (whose identities were known) carry Welles from the scene. He was also told by a British officer (Trevor Howard) that Welles had been a thief and a murderer, accusations Cotten refused to believe. But, as the movie progressed, he learned that what he had been told was true — and he found out that Welles was very much alive.

"By the time Lime finally appears," Ebert wrote, "we have almost forgotten Welles is even *in* the movie."

And, thus, the stage was set for the final scene — a chase through the sewers of Vienna.

It was in that final scene that the movie's distinctive cinematography was most in evidence, with its severe lighting and unusual camera angles.

"The chase sequence ... is another joining of the right action with the right location," Ebert wrote. "Harry escapes into the sewer system like a cornered rat, and [director Carol] Reed edits the pursuit into long, echoing, empty sewer vistas, and closeups of Lime's sweaty face, his eyes darting for a way out."

And the music. Its influence on the mood of the movie was unmistakable.

"Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action?" Ebert wrote, referring to the nearly constant zither music. Reed came across the musician who performed it one night in a Viennese beer house where the musician was playing. The movie's theme was one of the biggest hits of 1950.

My answer to Ebert's question would be "Probably not."

I don't think "The Third Man" was the greatest movie ever made — I'm still inclined to give that designation to "Citizen Kane" — but I definitely think it was one of the great film noirs ever made.