Thursday, May 9, 2013

Classics: A Review of The Third Man By Lauren Ennis

Heeeere's Orson!
Following the start of the film noir movement in the United States, it wasn’t long until Europe inevitably took notice. In order to compete with the downbeat dramas that Hollywood was exporting to a world weary public, European studios took to the drawing board and began producing some dour dramas of their own. Many of these films expanded upon the genre by incorporating the moral ambiguity and desperation that had swept the continent following the horrors of the Second World War. This expert use of time and place in turn created a greater sense of realism that made European noir truly unsettling. One of the most expertly executed European noirs is the British suspense tale The Third Man, which combined the techniques and locations of Europe with the unexpected casting of two American leading men to create a truly universal masterpiece.

Unlike most American noirs, which often strove to create a mysterious and ominous atmosphere, The Third Man opens on a casual, almost cavaliar note. The film abandons the common Hollywood trick of framing the story through flashbacks and instead opts to begin with the observations of an omniscient narrator. The use of the narrator serves to establish the setting of post-war Vienna while simultaneously poking fun at the popular travel films of the era. The narrator introduces the audience to pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Jospeh Cotton) as he arrives in the city at the request of his friend, fellow American Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Unfortunately for Holly, however, he is soon informed that Harry was recently struck by a car and killed. This news leaves Holly to cope with the loss of his friend as he attempts to maneuver through a city that is foreign in more ways than one. Holly attends Harry’s funeral, where he is approached by the British sector’s Chief of Police Major Calloway. Calloway insists that Harry was involved in some sort of black market racket and suggests that Holly leave Vienna as soon as possible. Holly is mortified by Calloway’s accusations and sets out to prove Harry’s innocence. Along the way, he encounters a variety of colorful characters including Harry’s gleefully unscrupulous associates and grief stricken girlfriend. Just as Holly begins to think he has a grasp of what became of his friend, he is confronted with a shocking truth that leads him to question his entire world-view.

You just had to give Orson top billing.
 In many ways, the film perfectly captures a time and place that history would rather forget. The film’s use of location shots in Vienna provides viewers with a glimpse into the devastation that continued to dominate after World War II ended. The desolation of the setting is beautifully contrasted by the nonchalant way in which the characters regard their surroundings. It is this contrast that demonstrates how much the characters have been able to get used to after years of compromises. The cinematography further adds to the film’s disquieting atmosphere by displaying nearly every frame just a bit off center and surrounding the characters in shadow. This use of imagery further reinforces the film’s recurring motif of a world gone awry. The film’s zither score stands in stark opposition to its bleak images as it carries the film along with a relaxed, almost jovial ,theme song that suggests life is moving  on in Vienna, albeit under unusual circumstances.

One of the film’s most striking aspects is the way in which it blends the conventions of both American and European noir. Holly stands in for the typical well-meaning hero who so often finds himself in over his head in American noir. Throughout Holly’s quest for answers he encounters the ravages of the war, but is too consumed with his personal concerns to pay them any attention. Although every street he walks seems to be strewn with rubble and every face he sees bears a hardened gaze, he still manages to remain naïvely idealistic.  It is only when he is forced to confront the victims of Harry’s poisoned penicillin that he finally realizes the world is not the black and white struggle between good and evil that he so often writes about.
On the opposite spectrum, Harry embodies the opportunism running rampant amonght the city's desperate citizens. Although he is only on screen for a limited time, the audience gains a clear notion of what drives Harry when he says to Holly,  

I've lived in worse places.
“in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”

What makes Harry all the more troubling is the fact that Welles’ charismatic performance makes him a likeable, if not altogether relatable villain. As a result, the ethical waters of the story are made even murkier by the fact that the audience finds it almost as difficult to hate Harry as Holly does. Through his ability to win the audience’s interest, if not outright sympathy, Harry provides the audience with the same temptation that people across Europe faced when confronted with the charms of opportunistic racketeers and their profitable schemes. Thus, the presence of Holly and Harry provides the story with the dual perspectives of American optimism and European cynicism following World War II.

The Third Man truly stands out as a masterful tale of suspense even in today's era of quick shocks and gory thrills. The film remains one of the most iconic works in Welles' legendary career and it's twist still has the power to baffle audiences . The film expertly transports viewers into the defeated heart of post-war Vienna and serves as a reminder of the lengths to which people will go to retain the things that they hold dear. Through the combination of an intelligent script, captivating performances, gorgeous cinematography, and a memorable score, The Third Man took film noir beyond its pulp origins into the depths of existential despair. Take a walk down the streets of Vienna with Holly Martins and find out what it is about the adventures of Harry Lime that continues to charm and haunt viewers in equal measure. You'll remember it, but you certainly won't regret it.

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