English Language Wednesday: The Third Man (1949)

4 05 2011

You know what they say: “Variety is the spice of life.” Taking this sentiment to heart I think it would be appropriate to stick to certain categories each day and Wednesdays shall be devoted to English language films, primarily dramas. So to begin English Language Wednesday we’ll start with Carol Reed’s mystery The Third Man.

The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martin’s arrival in Vienna on invitation from his long-time friend Harry Lime. Martin (Joseph Cotten) is a struggling novelist who travelled to Vienna on the promise work from his good friend. To his dismay he finds Lime not there to meet him at the airport or at his residence, only to be informed that Harry Lime was killed in a car accident just prior to his arrival. Holly doesn’t believe everything adds up and goes on a search for the true answers behind Harry Lime’s death. Here we find a host of characters hiding information with contradictory stories, something is being covered up and a befuddled Martin storms his way through town trying to find some answers. ‘Curious’ could quite possibly be the best word to describe this UK mystery as on the surface it looks like a film noir; we have a man entering unknown territory, an inciting death and following investigation, a mysterious girl, and the black/white contrasting cinematography so commonly associated with the genre. Yet despite all of that, the actual qualities that make up a noir are absent, and instead the movie focuses purely on the mystery of it all. In addition the music accompanying is far from that of a tense world of lust and murder, instead being very light most of the time. Yes, The Third Man is a very curious film and frankly that is part of what makes it so unique.

Tale of Two Genres

Carol Reed splits the film into two distinct stylistic parts: the first being a mystery and then it switches after all the facts are discovered into an involving thriller. As Holly Martin digs into the mystery of Harry Lime’s death, it is obvious he is in over his head. Every character he meets is friendly yet are all hiding something or at least intentionally misleading him. For every piece of information Holly receives more is obvious right under the surface; he begins to get frustrated with this lack of true information and the viewer is equally confused as to what is really happening. Reed allows Holly to consistently acquire new information but always with a hint a deeper understanding beyond his grasp causing not only Holly but the viewer to constantly question what is going on. The final half hour turns to film into a fast thriller. Now I won’t ruin the reveal for those who haven’t seen it, but it is rewarding and jump-starts the stakes into overdrive.

45-String Samurai

Quite possibly the most unique aspect to The Third Man is the music. Scored by Anton Karas on the zither, it brings a interesting feel to the movie that turns out to be a stroke of genius by Carol Reed. The zither is a string instrument and unlike the mysteries of Hitchcock which use very tense strings, the zither plucks away one string at a time giving it a very playful feel allowing the plot to movie forward very briskly. The most interesting part of the instrument is that it seems to embody Orson Welles’ character. With every scene, the zither accompanies Welles so well that when we hear the music without him I can’t help but imagining his soul encompassing every scene of this film, or that he is some sort of puppet-master looking over Holly as he struggles with this mystery. This is part of the reason re-watching The Third Man is so enjoyable even with the knowledge of what happens.

The Third Man is not only one of the best mysteries ever made, but also one of the best UK films ever made as well. From its incredible style and cinematography, to interesting characters, and a plot that keeps you intrigued all the time; it is one of the most enjoyable movies to watch and then re-watch again.

Score: 98/100

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