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Film Review: The Third Man

I reckon that Quentin Tarantino has seen The Third Man quite a few times. The sharp, intelligent, and irreverent dialogue; wacky camera angles and quirky character actors that never succumb to convention. Let’s face it, the legendary Harry Lime is nothing more than a scoundrel. Our hero, Western writer Holly Martins, is frustratingly dim-witted and fickle while the love interest, played by Alida Valli, is lovelorn and loyal but also so self-absorbed that she never, ever engenders pity from the audience. This movie is the antithesis of Casablanca and, remarkably then, one of the most revered noir-thrillers of all time.

Directed by Carol Reed and written for the screen by Graham Greene, The Third Man is a story of betrayal and corruption in a post-war, occupied Vienna. Martins arrives in the war-ravaged city to meet his lifelong friend, the ubiquitous Harry Lime, only to find that he there has been a mysterious accident and is dead. He becomes suspicious and strives to account for his friend’s demise. He meets British military police officer Major Calloway ("not Callahan; I'm English, not Irish") and is sucked into a world of guilt, disillusionment and decadence. His life becomes a metaphor for the post-war Europe of the late forties and fifties.

A cat walks by an open doorway shrouded in shadow, tracing the outline of a pair of black, black shoes. Suddenly, his face is exposed by light from above. Harry Lime lives! He is motionless. He gazes up at Holly with amusement. So arrogant. So charismatic. This film confirms and solidifies the myth of Orson Welles. His presence is stamped all over the celluloid, even though his part is, in truth, a cameo.

Welles wrote his own dialogue for the marvelous fairground scene. For a few ominous moments (in a very different kind of amusement-thrill ride), Harry threatens Holly, contemplating execution of his uncooperative friend because he is the only one with living proof of his existence: "There's no proof against me, besides you." He justifies his terrible crimes in a cruel monologue:-

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

All the while, Anton Karas’ solo instrumental zither twangs, lingering long with its mesmerising, disconcerting tones. The music is almost knowing, a tool used by the film-maker to convince the audience not to take things too seriously.

The climactic chase scene through the Venetian bombsites, down a manhole and into the subterranean Venetian sewers is masterful. Claustrophobic echoes of footsteps, German orders, gushing water and deafening gunfire drive Harry to desperation as he strives to escape his pursuers. Exaggerated shadows creep and crawl over the walls and cobblestones. He is trapped in Hades, now and forever. The closing sequence is bleak and uncompromising yet strangely beautiful.

If you have never seen The Third Man, I envy the experience you are about to have.

Stephen McNulty

(bullet) See also Brian's review of another Orson Welles masterpiece - 'Touch of Evil
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