Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Third Man redux...it's Noir to me

Every year I re-watch The Third Man film made in the late 40's. Many of you know it, no doubt watched this black and white classic several times. If you haven't, treat yourself, it's on Netflix US right now.
I always discover something new.  What I took away from this viewing was the Noir aspect.
Maybe I've been so seduced by the zither music, visuals and camera shots, the atmosphere of cobbled streets,  the sewer chase, war torn Vienna and the stellar actors that this hadn't registered in quite the way it had before.
The opening and ending shots take place in the cematary - in essence - sorry, it's a spoiler but The Third Man came out in 1948, so I figure a spoiler for a sixty nine year old movie is ok.
You could look at it this way - guy meets girl, girls grieving over dead boyfriend, will he succeed to win her over? The opening shot is a mirror of the last - guy doesn't get girl, he's up the creek and more disillusioned than when he arrived in Vienna. The girl has 'spoiler' lost Harry Lime twice.
When I do a workshop on setting, usually I start with the opening minute of this film.
There's narration over shots of pre-War Vienna, the Hapsburg palaces, the mention of the post-war black market and furtive men with a sleeve of watches, the four armed Allied presence - France, UK, Russia and US and the not so lucky black marketeer shown floating upside down in the Danube.
Bang. All in a minute, with the zither playing the theme, we see/hear the former glory, view the rubble strewn detritus of war, see the refugees scraping by for a living, or not,  the black market, the danger of the Allied Occupation dividing the city into four zones. To me, it's a brilliant introduction; the scene is set, danger is foreshadowed, and conflict introduced. Graham Greene, the story goes, was sent to postwar Vienna to write a screenplay which turned into this story.
That, he did. He used Vienna as a character as much as Harry Lime, who is probably in the movie about fifteen minutes, but his presence is what this film is about. Harry Lime, spoiler alert, is and here comes the twist, the Third Man. The first time I ever saw this movie, my jaw dropped. I never saw it coming. It still gives me shivers when the cat nestles on his shoes and headlights illuminate the face of undead Harry Lime.

Orson Welles, who played Lime, was two weeks late for filming and didn't want to film in the sewers. The producer Carol Reed was on a deadline and couldn't twiddle his or the crew's thumbs so he spent a lot of his waiting time, filming at night and experimenting with camera angles and shots.
Thanks to a late Welles, we have a much richer film. He contributed the famous line about the Swiss and the Cuckoo Clock but the rest was pure Graham Greene. Watch it today and it's still seamless. Tight. Dialogue, I for one, wish I could write. There's comedic touches, and nothing gets in the way of pacing and tension and each shot with Vienna a masterpiece.
Graham Greene gives Holly Martins, Lime's friend who has come to Vienna for a promised job,  a profession like his own. A writer. In this case, Holly writes Westerns and is referred to a 'scribbler with too much drink in him' and later by the British policeman here as a 'writer of cheap novelettes.' And of course, broke.
What Welles as Lime doesn't give in actual screen time - awesomeness itself - is the villain who his friend Holly cares about and a girlfriend who still loves him. We kind of do, too. Harry Lime hasn't grown up, life is a game and should be well played. His referring to the common people as ants in a charming way can't mask the the real horror of what he's done - diluting penicillin for profit which kills children and others. He's a charming cad, and a seducer. And, like the characters, I couldn't hate him. Rooted for him in the end to escape and crawl out of that sewer. That, to me, is what a brilliant writer does, get your empathy even for a villain. At least understand why he does what he does. 
The secondary characters, many of them trained Vienesse and British actors who you've seen in many films and with a long career, almost stole the scenes they were in...vivid and immersing. I think this film is one of the reasons I took a chance on a little idea I had and started writing.
Cara - Tuesday

Cara - Tuesday


  1. It's true. This is a brilliant movie, as is Orson Welles in it.

    Some friends say this is their favorite movie. It certainly is all that you say it is.

    I didn't have sympathy for Harry Lime, but I can see that some viewers would be swayed.

    This post reminds me to see this film again. There is always something new to learn.

  2. Great post, Cara, thanks. Saw the film DECADES ago, I think I need a refresh...

  3. Really worth another watch, EvKa!

  4. Amazing. Two nights ago I was with some folks from east of here (Greece) who turned the subject to favorite "crime" films and at least two picked The Thin Man! Once again you're in sync with world opinion, Cara.