The Third Man

The Third Man. London Film 1949

Before watching the movie

Apparently, this movie has appeared in the number two spot on a list of best British movies, and I only hear about it in discussion of lesser-known great Orson Welles movies. Welles is playing the (supposedly?) dead man, so, while even in the late 40s, you don’t cast Orson Welles as a corpse, his presence might be inflated by the fact that he’s the only recognizable name in the cast.

After watching the movie:

American Holly Martins arrives in occupied Vienna, having been invited by his old friend Harry Lime to come work for him. However, when Martins arrives, he finds that Lime was recently killed in a car accident that sounds very suspicious to Martins, who starts digging and finds that the story told by Lime’s friends doesn’t match the story told by bystanders. Determined to solve Harry’s murder, Martins goes to the police, who are uninterested, telling him that Lime was a criminal and Martins should probably go. Martins meets with Lime’s girlfriend Anna, hoping to find help proving Lime’s innocence. Martins and Anna attempt to find the third man who was with Harry Lime when he died, who was not reported to the police, opposed by the police and by Lime’s racketeering friends.

While the setting is more similar to Judgment at Nuremberg, as both are in Allied-occupied Germany immediately after the war, the heavy focus on what life is like for the locals and distrust of the international authorities in this story reminds me more of Casablanca‘s Nazi occupation. One German comments that they never expected liberation to be like this. Germans are as terrorized in their day to day lives by the Allied police as they were by the Nazi regime. Only crime has a chance to flourish, and the authorities don’t care whose rights they step on in the pursuit of stopping crime.

The movie has been praised for its use of expressionist cinematography, but aside from a heavy use of Dutch Angles in scenes that didn’t feel enhanced by them, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps it would have seemed more appropriate with editing and music that more traditionally highlighted the tension involved, but the all-zither score didn’t always communicate the thriller atmosphere to me, since it usually sounds either like an Italian villa or a Hawaiian beach (because of the similarity in sound to the ukulele).

The malaise and cynicism is very strong in this movie, and it makes an interesting look into “liberated” Germany. Most of the art and technique combine to create a well-realized noir thriller, I just didn’t get the music that most people praise.

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