The Third Man

Continuing my theme of “old black and white films, good, new colour films, bad”, I hope the following proves inspirational enough that more people watch what has been voted the “best British film of the 20th century” by the British Film Institute.

Notable for many things, not least the cast, including Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. It also stars Bernard Lee (latterly more famous for playing M in the majority of the James Bond films) and is based on a screenplay by Graham Greene.

So…potentially a lot to live up to there. Does it succeed, does it pass the audition?

Of course it does. Set in bombed-out post-war Vienna The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Cotton) and his quest to uncover the truth about the increasingly strange disappearance of his friend Harry Limes (Welles).  As the film progresses we get introduced to Harry Limes through his friends and lover Anna (Valli) before the final scenes reveal the true picture.  This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but then to reveal more would just show me up as a shameless Wikipedia plagiariser.

So why is it so damned good then? There are many stand-out moments for me.  Let’s start with the score, which will I’m sure be familiar to most people, it being used in adverts and all sorts over the years.  This provides a perfect accompaniment to the film; helping create atmosphere, set the tempo and lead the action sequences such as they are.  Surprisingly, the score was written and performed by Anton Karas using only a zither (stringed instrument from central Europe) and it is remarkable given the effects it achieves.

Secondly, I was mightily impressed with the characters and story.  Without divulging too much, the film is very clever at building-up a picture of Limes, without him even appearing in person until the final quarter of the film.  This is accomplished by Holly’s determination to uncover what really happened, and by speaking to the various players surrounding Limes; from his fellow racketeers and Anna through to Major Calloway of the British Army.  In this time, we can see Holly’s own picture of his friend change from good to bad to worse.

When Welles does appear we are treated to some wonderful shots (standing in a darkened doorway, suddenly lit), but it is in Limes wanting to know what his friend is up to, that ultimately leads to his exposure and downfall.  The climax to the film is shot in the sewers under Vienna (filmed on set in Shepperton studios) and is a masterpiece of direction and sound.  We see Limes chased around the sewer system by Calloway and his troops; shadows everwhere, arches, narrow passageways, footsteps and running water.  The combination is wonderful and makes for a thrilling and fitting climax to such a great film.  Welles is brilliant in this section of the film and convinces utterly as someone who knows his time is up; running out of hiding places and having run out of friends.

Much has been made of Orson Welles’ role in the making of the film and I can only conclude this stems from most of the very memorable scenes containing him.  His own influence was something he always denied, giving full credit to director Carol Reed.  In conclusion, The Third Man is a very British noir and if older films don’t quite click for you, would make an ideal introduction to film noir, Orson Welles and film ”classics” in general.

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