Friday, April 2, 2010

The Third Man (1949)

Leave it to the American to mess everything up.

A movie with the amount of acclaim that The Third Man has always sets me on edge. The more I hear about how good a movie is, the more I worry that it won't meet my expectations. Luckily, this time, The Third Man didn't entirely disappoint. Like most of the films from this era, I enjoyed and appreciated The Third Man, but it didn't effect me in the way it effects so many viewers. The film is an entirely enjoyable, well put together piece of cinema that simply failed to, entirely, blow me away.

The film starts with Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotton, showing up in post-World War II Vienna. When he arrives he discovers that the reason he came in the first place, a job offered by his friend Harry Lime, Orson Welles, has dried up on account of Lime being, well, dead. From there, Martin's does what American's do best. He spends the next hour or so screwing everything up, meddling in dangerous people's business and getting attacked by domesticated birds while trying to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Lime's death. At that point, things get turned on their head and the movie finally starts to get interesting. Directed by Brittish filmmaker Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, The Third Man is a critics, and a film buffs, darling. It commonly tops lists of the best Brittish films, best mysteries and sits quite high on the IMDB Top 250. The film won an Academy Award for Cinematography, which it totally deserved, and was nominated for two more awards. The question is, does The Third Man deserve all the acclaim? The answer is harder to decide.

There is one place where The Third Man unquestionably succeeds. That place is in the cinematography. Everything about how The Third Man looks is brilliant. You can compliment just about everything that went into the visual style of the film including the use of light and shadows, the placement of the camera, slightly ajar in some scenes, and the beautiful shots of Vienna's empty streets at night. In particular, the scene with Lime's finger's reaching out from the sewer grate as he tries to escape, and the entire final chase through the sewers, are some of the most astounding pieces of visual film making I have ever seen. The visuals alone make the movie worth seeing, but there are some other elements working for it as well. The film's dialog is well written, injecting wonderful, dry humor at just the right moments, and the characters are, generally, well motivated and formed. Even more important than the characters was the use of setting in The Third Man. One of the biggest problems with most movies is that the setting serves as little more than a backdrop for the action. In this film, the setting is an active plot piece. It weighs on and effects the vast majority of the actions that occur in the film and it is one of the best uses of setting I have ever seen. There is also the incredibly, for the time, ballsy ending that impresses on a visual and emotional level. While these things alone make the movie memorable and worth seeing, I found myself growing less and less impressed with the movie the longer I thought about it.

My biggest gripe with The Third Man is that the film didn't create an appropriate feeling of tension through the first, large chunk of the movie. I really enjoyed the music that played throughout the film, I thought it was an interesting change of pace, but it wrecked any sense of drama or tension that the film was attempting to build. Even though Holly was in danger of being killed, arrested or worse, the music made his whole crusade to find the truth seem like nothing more than the fancy of a bumbling fool. Maybe that was the intention, but it didn't work for me. This lack of tension and drama early on leads to the other major problem with the film. That problem was pacing. The Third Man may have been the longest hour and forty five minutes of my life. Even though I enjoyed most of it, I couldn't help but wondering why it took so long to get exciting. In the end, I think my expectations of the movie weighed in heavily on what I was looking for and my enjoyment of the film suffered as a result. As a mystery, I was focused in heavily on plot details, the who, what, when and where, but that resulted in my dissatisfaction when the mystery didn't pay off in a traditional way. Little character details that I expected to be important, such as Holly being a writer, never payed off in a meaningful way. These details were still relevant to the story, but not in the way I was expecting.

In the end, I think another viewing of The Third Man is in my distant future. If that viewing only yields a second round of enjoyment of the films beautiful visuals than so be it, but I expect that, with a different focus, I may find the movie more worthy of all the acclaim it receives. At the very least, I can say that I enjoyed The Third Man and that it deserves it's spot on the 1001 movies list.



Michaƫl Parent said...

Very good review! The first time I saw The Third Man I had the same impressions as you had. But this week it was the second time I watched it and, knowing what to expect, I truly appreciated it way much more!

Amila Kanchana said...

This movie goes to my watch list, double thumbs up for the good review! :-)

Anonymous said...

The Third Man is fantastic. front to back.