The Noirvember Files: The Third Man
A peculiar and ghostly tale set in post-World War II Vienna, Carol Reed’s The Third Man holds the distinction of being one of the most famous and renowned films of the film noir genre, capturing the transition of the time period in a way which blends together mystery and paranoia in spades.
Taken from a script by Graham Greene, it centers around American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who travels to Vienna shortly after World War II to rendezvous with his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to wind up at Lime’s funeral after hearing he has died in a car accident. But Martins is in disbelief, and in doing some amateur investigating, becomes entwined in a tangled web involving a crooked black market and the governing Allied powers, about what really happened to his friend.
Martins essentially becomes a defacto detective despite being totally out of his element, only being able to rely on the traits he knows from the stories he writes.. He encounters a range of questionable characters, but he is aided by Lime’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli), still distraught over the loss of her love. Slowly falling for her charms despite knowing he can never have her. Martins is not the most likeable protagonist, casually making asides that reveal his impoliteness in an inscrutable, albeit lighthearted nature. This element certainly raises the dark, foreboding quality of the mystery at hand, as does the zither-based musical score that initially seems anachronistic but becomes symbolic.
The reveal surrounding Harry Lime partway through the film stands to be one of the greatest surprises in film history. Even for such a small part and not being responsible for its authorship, Welles is iconic in his role, and has become more synonymous with the film in pop culture than Cotten himself.
Reed executes Green’s script with resounding effect, setting up plot points and characters without giving away too much, and allowing for each sequence to hold grave significance in the overarching story. The dialogue itself is crackling as well, with Lime’s ‘cuckoo-clock’ speech delivered toward the end a perfect character moment for inscribing his outlook. Just as well, the cinematography from Robert Krasker is a perfect expression of the hallmarks of noir style, heavy on shadows and stark lighting and using a fair amount of dutch angles to render the unease of the narrative.
The Third Man is most certainly beloved by many fans of film noir, being often classified as an essential of the genre, from its uncertain opening to its vicious ending, accentuated by its spellbinding story and dazzling cinematography. It stands to be not only an extraordinary film of its category, but almost certainly one of the greatest films, period.