Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Retro Review- The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

"You know what the fellow said- in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they hard warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."- Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man.

This tale of British noir, directed by Carol Reed (Oliver), is set in post-WWII Vienna, a city that is virtually in ruins. When the film wishes to open with depicting a "slice-of-life," it shows soldiers that are constantly walking in their different different sectors of the streets and that mostly everyone is walking through rubble and demolished areas.

The story follows American novelist Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) who is invited to Vienna by his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover upon arrival that Lime was killed in a car accident. After talking to a variety of associates and friends of Harry, Holly begins to believe that not everything is as it seems. It turns out that all of the reports, of only two men carrying Lime to the curbside after the car accident, are incorrect. It is revealed that there was a third man and as more details become apparent, is Lime really the man and friend that Holly thought he was?

The movie not only has a thrilling premise, but it is presented in a dynamic fashion. The lighting captures the slick looking streets and the deep focus detail of all of these off-kilter angles creates a foreign and unnerving feeling. It doesn't matter whether the scene is on a staircase or in the sewers, this is a fantastic looking black-and-white film. The music is an all-zither score. It's an odd and unique choice and it just somehow fits with the film's look and story. It's almost as if everything is meant to keep you off-balance as the film moves towards its finale.

It was great to see more of Joseph Cotten as I had only seen him in Citizen Kane as Jebediah (also opposite Welles). At the end when Holly seems defeated as Anna (Valli) walks by, I was reminded to take a look back at Cotten's performance (as a lot of attention is spent on Welles at least in the reviews I've read), I was amazed how even without the final shot of the film being a close-up of him, we can still feel what he is feeling- defeated. To have the hero defeated for not doing anything all that wrong and then to set up the finale with that long shot, it just felt jaw-dropping to watch. All of the other performers (Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, etc.) embody their parts, but I was caught by surprise to see Bernard Lee as a police officer. Nine years ago, I spent a summer watching him as M in the James Bond movies and here he plays a much more fun of a character. The love story that also develops is interesting and organic as Anna is still in love with Harry, but perhaps it is that shared admiration of Harry that draws Holly closer to her.

Now onto the reason why I wanted to watch the film- the iconic performance of Orson Welles. I love going into classics and not knowing much about them, as the ferris wheel scene just comes as such a pleasant surprise. Harry mentions how he still believes in and fears God, but he doesn't care if one of those "dots" (referring to the people on the ground) were to stop moving. The moment is haunting in retrospect, mainly because Welles plays the role with such allure and charm. Interestingly enough and compared to Cotten, Welles doesn't have a lot of screen-time. Still, his presence is built up so wonderfully with famed novelist Graham Greene's script that his presence is justified when Welles steps out from the shadows on the street corner for the first time and then after that- his aura is still hanging around. I like that shot when Harry comes from the rubble across the street and above the cafe where Holly plans to entrap him (the camera pans to the right showing the landscape, with it being Harry's point-of-view). You sort of feel like Harry is lording over his domain. How interesting it is then that he meets his end below, in the sewers.

I remember when I first watched Welles, it was in Citizen Kane. The film is praised for being such a technically proficient looking film, but I always jump right back to the character of Charles Foster Kane and that fearless portrayal by Welles. The character was both emotionally vulnerable and with a steel exterior. Welles just has this look about him that makes his presence so well known and that comes across in The Third Man as well.

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