Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man seems to be regarded as film noir by default only, as if it's simply the most convenient way to discuss the film. Of course it's always been a loose genre descriptor, and The Third Man fulfills plenty of the requirements — murder, intrigue, a mysterious woman and sharp, if not particularly hard-boiled dialogue. But the famous score, performed on a zither, tends to work against the cynical nature of the film, lightening the dark corners and shadows particular to the genre, often lending a more lighthearted feel, full of smirk and humor. The darkest, and most interesting element is the setting. Pulp novelist Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) is drawn to post-war Vienna to meet a friend, Harry Lime, who promises work in the crumbled city. Vienna's bombed-out buildings are never too far off screen, lending an added weariness to the otherwise fast-paced mystery.

After the long flight in from the states, Holly arrives at Harry's apartment only to learn that his friend was struck and killed by a car the day before. The death was deemed an accident, but as soon as Holly starts asking questions, he learns of Harry's black-market entanglements and circle of bizarre friends who were present the day of the incident. Holly is now the main character in a suspense story seemingly ripped from one of his own adventure novels, and he intends to write the ending.

Allied-occupied Vienna is interesting for a reason beyond the bullet holes — it was divided into four regions following WW2 — United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France, with all four bureaucracies and police departments butting heads and created even more difficulties as Holly tries to protect Harry's former lover, and crack the case. Orson Welles doesn't appear until just passed the midway mark, and does so with a wink and smile. His charismatic supporting role carries the film past the somewhat predictable twist, through a beautifully-staged climax in a massive sewer system and towards the inevitable conclusion. British director Carol Reed employs lot of off-angle and skewered shots, and the film is often incorrectly and casually attributed to Orson Welles. It has been ranked as the best British film of the 20th century, and it won some Oscars and the Grand Prix at the Cannes in 1949. I liked it a bit less than the hype, but it's good none-the-less. A-

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