Classic 40s Movie: “The Third Man”

September is Classic 40s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Harry Cooke.

Movie Title: The Third Man

Year: 1949

Writers: Screenplay by Graham Greene, adapted from his original novel

Lead Actors: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles

Director: Carol Reed

IMDb Plot Summary: Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious “death” of an old friend, Harry Lime.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 40s Movie

“Calloway: Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don’t know what you’re mixing in, get the next plane.
Martins: As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I’ll get the next plane.
Calloway: Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.
Martins: Mind if I use that line in my next Western?”

The cobblestone streets. The zither score. The tense banter in a lofty Ferris Wheel cart and the climactic pursuit in an subversive sewer. The quirky quips and the melancholy moments.

How can one possibly evaluate a film as culturally emblematic or ingenuously refreshing as The Third Man?

Before a single viewing, one would expect the dark grittiness of what is expected from noir of the late 30s and wartime 40s that gave it its archetypes. Sure, it has the shadowy lighting and fuming cigarettes we have come to anticipate from the genre, but what distinguishes it from films such as M, The Maltese Falcon, and even Double Indemnity is its devil-may-care, cheeky sense of black humor.

One scene, for instance, features the police waiting to ambush racketeer Harry Lime. From a distance they spot an ominous shadow slowly approaching the premises and they prepare to pounce, only to find the shadow’s origin to be none other than an innocent balloon seller. Furthermore, the patron attempts to sell an inflatable to the lurking cops; they banter back and forth until one decides to emerge from the shadows and purchase the bloody balloon. In any other film of that era (not by the Marx brothers, that is) this scene would seem out of place, even tacky; here it is appropriate and downright hysterical.

The film is also a valuable lesson on character construction. All seem to be affected in one way or another by Harry Lime, masterfully portrayed by Orson Welles in a manner as tangy as the name suggests. After an hour of building up to a despicable adversary (one of his plots includes smuggling penicillin at the cost of a children’s hospital patients), Lime (somehow) becomes a likable and charming fellow. We can finally understand Anna’s devotion to him; that is, why her letters to him are in stacks and why she mistakes Holly’s name for Harry when she begins to like him. After all, she does say “A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.” Holly himself does not earn any sort of ‘hero’ status. He calls Callahan Calloway, butchers a writers’ seminar on the ‘crisis of fate’, and, eventually, does not ‘get the girl’ like one of the westerns he authors. He himself is simply the third man in that relationship between Harry and Anna, costing him his friend and the other two their lives mortally or morally in a gloomy testament to what war can really do.

Greene reserves some of his religious themes prominent in his writing like in “The Power and the Glory” and “Brighton Rock”. Harry’s first death causes quite a stir as well as the subject of his fate, with a porter questioning his whereabouts in heaven or hell. Yet when Harry returns, or resurrects, his presence is hardly unnoticed. Lime’s speech regarding the ‘dots’ of the world is a chilling precursor to Bond and Marvel villain mantras…he almost gains a god-like persona up on that Ferris Wheel and in the process gives the film its unsettling dark side.

The score by Anton Karas, provided solely on the zither instrument, suits every genre the masterpiece garners in screenings. On a first viewing the film can be considered a post-war thriller; the second a romantic tragedy, the third a black comedy, and so on. It is truly unbelievable that a score on one instrument can be so quintessential to so many moods.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie

Each moment of the film earns itself as a classic. Harry Lime’s first appearance as a neighbor’s lamp emits his fresh black and white cheeks is perfect, and Holly’s reluctant visit to a children’s hospital to witness his friend’s crime is moving.

Yet to me a short and underestimated scene is when Anna is being escorted from her apartment by policemen when, lo behold, one halts the procession to hand her a lipstick. Curt, cheeky, and smooth, just like the film itself.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie

Every character gets a moment to shine; really, Greene’s dialogue is masterful here. The one that outdoes the rest, however, is an original quote by Welles himself, the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ line sums up centuries of history as it sums up the film’s backwards tone:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, 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.”

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie

Take good looks at the expressionist setting — the depictions of postwar Vienna are marvelous, and you get a real treat when viewing titled angles of characters toppling over the bombed ruins.

If you have not seen The Third Man, see it. If you have, see it again. An immortal classic from the masters of the 40s.

Check out these great reflections on the film:

Martin Scorsese

Roger Ebert

Matt Zoller Seitz

Thanks, Harry! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

Twitter: @HarryTheTrekkie.

We already have a set of classic 5os movies, 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 40s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got 30 movies in the works, one for each day of the month!

Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can!!!

Act of Violence — Eric Rodriguez
Arsenic and Old Lace — Katha
Bicycle Thieves — Megaen Kelly
Brief Encounter — Emily Bonkoski
Casablanca — Paul Graunke
Double Indemnity — Susan Winchell
Five Graves to Cairo — Jeff Gibson
Foreign Correspondent — Doc Kane
His Girl Friday — John Henderson
It’s a Wonderful Life — David Laudenslager
Key Largo — Will King
Laura — Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Les enfants du paradis — Brendan Howley
Mrs. Miniver — Traci Nell Peterson
Notorious — Christine Henton
Now Voyager — Melissa Privette
Out of the Past — Brantley Aufill
Rope — Lance Morgan
The Bank Dick — Bob Saenz
The Best Years of Their Lives — Shaun Parker
The Big Sleep — Ipsita Barik
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir — Annie Wood
The Long Voyage Home — Vincent Martini
The Lost Weekend — Liz Warner
The Maltese Falcon — Roy Gordon
The Ox-Bow Incident — Clay Mitchell
The Philadelphia Story — Kristen Demaline
The Sin of Harold Diddlebock — David Joyner
The Third Man — Harry Cooke
To Have and Have Not — Felicity Flesher

Thanks to everyone who steps up for this ongoing project!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 40s movies featured in the series, go here.

Click REPLY and see you in comments about today’s classic 40s movie!

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