In furtherance of my desire to study up on film noirs to prepare me for writing a film noir, I decided to watch The Third Man. Set in the post-war era of the late 1940s, this classic film noir follows everyman dime novel author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) as he arrives in Vienna to attend the funeral of his late friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But after investigating further the events leading to Harry's death, Holly finds that his death may not have been the accident it was supposed by many to be. He seeks out the various friends and acquaintances of Harry, from Harry's former lover Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) to British officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). He earnestly seeks out to find just what kind of man Harry Lime was, and who the mysterious "third man" was at the scene of his death.
Distributed by Janus Films, who were also responsible for distributing Kurosawa films such as Stray Dog, The Hidden Fortress, and Seven Samurai, The Third Man is a masterpiece in every way. Even if it doesn't feel like a film noir at first, what with the upbeat zither music throughout the film and the snarky but equally optimistic opening narration, it is by all definitions a true film noir. From the lighting to the characterization, this film is cynical, but not drab, suspenseful, but not boring. It is fast paced, but in a good way, which is a good thing due to the film's dense time length, and doesn't drag on like a certain film about a bird statue.
Most important to the film are the characters. The protagonist, Holly Martins, starts of as an idealist in the noir world. Every character in the film serves as a foil to him. Where Holly is passionate, Major Calloway is cool and collected. Where Holly is (or attempts to be) smooth and suave, Anna sticks to a cold hearted, borderline-nihilistic worldview. But none of this is as evident in the contrast between Holly and Harry, where Holly, the idealist, stands in stark contrast to Harry, who serves as a the personification of noir; sardonic, nihilistic, and hardhearted. By the end of the film though, Holly is just as cynical as the world around him. The most complex character, however, is Major Calloway. On the one hand, he is a level headed, by-the-book cop, and starts off as something of an obstructive bureaucrat. On the other hand, he is a genuinely likeable, well rounded character with a sincere desire for justice. This excellent character work is bolstered by incredible acting. In particular, Orson Welles shows impressive acting range in this film, taking a great step away from the proud, ambitious mogul Charles Foster Kane to the slimy, deliberate gangster Harry Lime. In fact, all of the film's actors are very subtle in their performances, from Joseph Cotton as Holly to Ernst Deutsch as "Baron" Kurtz.
My only complaint about his film is that we are never really shown who the titular "third man" is. I have my own speculations about that man's identity, but I don't want to spoil the movie for those of you who haven't seen it. But, in true noir fashion, nobody gets what they want, not even the audience. Also, isn't Holly a girl's name? But I don't remember even any mild swear words being uttered in this film, so you can probably watch it with the family safely. There's no gore or sex or anything particularly objectionable in this movie. Even Harry's cuckoo clock speech is easily refuted after a quick trip to section devoted to it on it's Wikipedia page.
In the end, I am convinced that this is quite possibly not only one of the greatest films of all time, but also the greatest film noir of all time. Granted, this is only the second one I've seen, but I'm told that it's a classic anyway. At any rate, I feel this film is fully deserving of the highest rating I can give.
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