The masterpiece of The Third Man (1949) (yes, there’s allegory)
Before there was film noir, there was The Third Man (1949). Before there were shadowy thrillers as common as dirt, there was The Third Man. Before the abstract, the twist ending, and the allegory were commonplace, there was The Third Man. Well not really, but I was really taken with this movie, because it captures everything atmospheric and tense about the time period, using post WWII Vienna, Italy as a backdrop for one of the most engaging mysteries ever made.
Joseph Cotton plays Holly Martins, who has arrived in Vienna to see his long-time friend, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, Lime died only days before, and is buried as Martins arrives on the scene. He stays around to investigate some suspicious things about his friend’s death and realizes that there is a lot more going on than he first realizes.
This movie could be seen as an allegory for the occupation of post-war Vienna. After the Axis powers lost World War II, the city of Vienna, Italy was occupied by the Allies. It was divided into four sectors, with the USA, Russians, France, and England taking a piece. By 1947, the Cold War in Vienna was well under way, with everyone pulling at each other in different directions. The movie clearly shows the people are as battered as the city. Huge piles of rubble are worked on daily as a literal depiction of Italy trying to dig itself out of its broken state.
Martins is an optimist. He represents the American ideals and most of the other characters contrast his way of thinking. None of the native characters laugh or enjoy themselves, and everyone seems under a cloud of tension. Martins can barely get around the city without being questioned or told suspicious stories to set him off-track. He’s told to get lost, but sticks around anyway because Anna needs help.
Alida Valli plays Anna, who is a romantic. She clings tightly to images in her mind of what once was, and holds a candle for her estranged boyfriend, even though he’s a wanted criminal. She is a very striking and beautiful woman. Her performance is one of the best in the film, if not the best. As one of the most romantic cities on Earth, Anna easily represents everything about post-war Vienna. It is broken apart, like she is feeling. It is down in the dumps and has an uncertain future, like her. Many people want to control and manipulate it, like her. It is a striking parallel.
Orsen Welles as Harry, is the classic rogue. He’s a charlatan and I wondered what Anna saw in him when Martins finally confronts him. He’s not as broken up about her as she is about him, that much is clear, and he is doing well for himself running illegal medical drugs. The movie seems to imply that this way of life is coming to a quick end, as the boot of the government crushes down on the people. He twists things around and escapes for a while, but can’t hide in the end.
Roger Ebert’s favorite thing about this movie is the striking, guitar-like acoustics. The strings pluck and ping for most of the movie, with different little themes running throughout. It is pretty good. Famous critic Leonard Maltin named this movie a four-star classic, and he also complemented the music. Myself, I think the simple tunes add to the atmosphere, just like everything else in the film, like the the dozens of dutch angles and the striking shadows.
The chase scene is the embodiment of all the themes director Carol Reed built up over the course of the movie. It has striking shadows, as men run down the sewers after Harry, who is trying to elude police. We can see his black figure at one point, and it almost looks like something out of a painting. Is that another parallel to Vienna? Either way, this is the best scene in the movie, but it relies on the rest of the movie to built to its climax.
Overall, this is a great movie. Some of the dialogue is very memorable and most of the visuals are so well done that it almost looks like framed art. The direction reminds me of Hitchcock, and the best part is when Orson Welles suddenly appears out of the shadows like a ghost. It’s great. It may be old, but this movie is anything but tired and aged, still bringing enough Oscar-worthy atmosphere to entertain.