October 06, 2012

The Third Man

Over the years, The Third Man (1949) has acquired quite a reputation as a great film. I think it's a fairly obvious thriller, not a horrible movie by any means, but overrated. It's a post-WW2 film noir about an American novelist (Joseph Cotten) who travels to Vienna to visit his longtime pal Harry Lime. But when he arrives, he finds that Harry has just recently died--under mysterious circumstances--and undertakes his own investigation of Harry's death when the authorities fail to offer a satisfying explanation. As cinematically impressive as this movie is, it's also very dated. It feels like a lesser hybrid of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Joseph Cotten lacks the stylized, cocksure arrogance that worked so well for Humphrey Bogart in Falcon and The Big Sleep, and Orson Welles, who shows up in a supporting role, does his usual Orson Wellesy acting: talking over other people's lines, dropping his voice in and out. It feels more obvious here than in some of his other performances. I can't deny that the film is visually interesting and creative: director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker do good work turning this mystery into a sort of valentine to an era of loss and shapelessness: Europe's writhing period of recovery after the War. But the lightweight, annoyingly pleasant music score by Anton Karas kills the mood of the film. Perhaps this movie would have been too melodramatic with a more intense score, but the lilting zither, which plays intermittently throughout the picture, wears out its welcome early on. The images are stark and interesting, though. With Allida Valli, who might be a B-movie Ingrid Bergman, and Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, and Wilfrid Hyde-White in an amusing turn as a British literary enthusiast who unwittingly talks Cotten into speaking at his club, not realizing he's a hack. Also with Erich Ponto, Ernst Deutsch, and Siegfried Breuer. Adapted by Graham Greene from his short novel. 104 mins. b & w

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