Catching the Classics: The Third Man

Third Man PosterSince 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

It’s almost impossible to be a movie fan and not have heard of Orson Welles. Both as a director and an actor, his acclaim and influence are widespread. But as with a lot of classic actors, it’s possible to know of his work without actually knowing his work. My introduction to Welles came in my childhood, with his cameo in The Muppet Movie and his final role as a planet-eating robot in The Transformers: The Movie. While fun, neither is likely to be considered a definitive role for him. Then in seventh grade my English teacher played some of the old Shadow radio programs for us, and I learned to appreciate Welles’ delivery. But actually seeing him in action, in a major live-action role, always seemed to elude me. So one of the points of “Catching the Classics” was to finally rectify this matter. And although Citizen Kane will eventually be on the docket as well, I decided that first I wanted to check out his performance in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

In The Third Man, western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna to meet with his friend Harry Lime about a prospective business deal. Vienna after World War II is ravaged by the war, and — like Berlin — divided between the governments of different nations. The British have one quadrant, the Americans another, the French the third, and the Soviet Union has the fourth. This is all true to the actual history, and the film was shot on location; the devastation shown is real, which gives the film a haunting feel that it may not have been able to achieve on some Hollywood back lot.

When Martins arrives in Vienna, he is surprised and distressed to find that his friend Harry is dead, struck by a car a few days before. It is reported as an accident, and the police are disinclined to investigate it further. The British chief of police directly tells Holly that Vienna is better off without Lime, that Lime was a black market dealer of the worst sort. Holly can’t believe this of his old friend, and becomes suspicious of the “accident” itself. He finds that all the participants in the accident — the witnesses, the two men who helped carry Harry off the street, and even the driver himself — were all, each of them, friends and associates of Harry Lime. He then uncovers another witness who claims that there was another man who helped carry Lime off of the street and who did not stay around for the police to arrive. In order to get to the bottom of the matter, Holly Martins goes to seek out the third man.

It’s film noir at its finest, an amateur detective facing obstruction from both the criminals and the police on a case that seems to get murkier the more facts come to light. Cotten is a skillful actor, and his dogged determination makes it easy for the audience to root for him; at the same time, the audience can sympathize with him and worry for him, as he is very clearly out of his depth. He’s not a detective; he’s a writer, and not even a mystery writer. He’s not a tough guy; he gets knocked for a loop early on by a constable defending his captain after Cotten takes some of his comments about Lime the wrong way. He doesn’t even speak the local language. In every way, he’s set up to fail, but he persists. He applies the same dogged determination to the film’s femme fatale, Alida Valli; Valli’s character was Lime’s lover, and despite his death and the allegations against him, she is still devoted to him.

All of this would make for a very solid piece of film noir. What elevates it to a classic, however, is in the last act of the film, when Orson Welles finally makes his appearance as the third man. His screen time is minimal compared to the other characters; I’m not sure of an exact count, but perhaps 15 minutes out of the hour and a half run time. Yet Welles’ performance is electric. He’s evil to the core, yet somehow charming in his mannerisms. He can threaten with a few words while acting as though he means no harm. And he delivers one of the all time great villainous speeches, one that genuinely shakes the hero.

It’s a terrific performance in a terrific film. The Third Man has everything that could be asked of film noir. It has a flawed yet sympathetic hero, a tempestuous femme fatale, and a fascinating villain. It has a peculiar mystery and a believable assortment of obstacles. It has terrific cinematography and a great chase scene for a climax. It’s absolutely worth catching for anybody who hasn’t seen it.

Rating: 5 Stars

Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.

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10 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: The Third Man

  1. Zither music, a great chase through the sewers, and young M to boot.I like your impression of Joseph Cotton, I think he was very underrated in most films he was in.

    • I suspect he simply gets overshadowed by some of the larger-than-life actors he’s worked with. Here, its Orson Welles. In The Abominable Dr. Phibes he had a large role, but of course the film is all about Vincent Price. Looks like he was in Citizen Kane as well; I don’t know how big the role was, but no doubt he was overshadowed by Welles there as well.

  2. This is a good review. For me, the film is completely hokey and the only thing good in it is Welles’ performance. I have actually written a Classically Shitty about it, but haven’t gotten around to publishing it yet. Welles certainly has an interesting filmography.

  3. Now, you went and done it, Morgan!

    Gave a righteous critique of a film that is the definition of oblique European noir. With a fish out of water hero. Marvelous bombed out, shadowy, echoing and intriguing Vienna as a backdrop. One of the three greatest entrances in film and a charming, erudite, often ad libbing villain to surpass all expectations in Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.

    Also some of the best teamwork between Jospeh Cotten and Welles since ‘Citizen Kane’.

    Nicely done, sir!

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