Home / Film Noir Thursday #4: The Third Man

Film Noir Thursday #4: The Third Man

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Made in 1949, The Third Man is directed by Carol Reed and stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles. It's been much lauded and is considered a hallmark of the genre. It's the fourth movie in the Film Noir Marathon.

As I've come to almost expect now from films in this genre, The Third Man does not start off with a bang. In fact, I found the first 40 minutes or so to be rather drab, dull, and boring. It seems to serve as a long and disjointed prelude to the more exciting second half of the movie.

We meet up with the main character Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) when he travels to Vienna to take a job at the request of his old school friend Harry Lime. He's a washed up pulp writer with nothing better to do. Upon arriving, however, he is casually informed that his friend has just died in a peculiar car accident — peculiar, because the more Holly asks around about the circumstances of the accident and those involved, the more things start to look less like an accident and more like murder. However, this beginning half is done in a choppy, awkward way which alienates the viewer and fails to build any tension throughout.

Warning! Minor Spoiler Ahead

Just after the hour mark though, everything (thankfully) shifts gear. This is due almost entirely to Orson Welles' character, Harry Lime, appearing. He has an amazing intro scene which makes you take notice of the great visual flair with which the movie is directed. Orson Welles gives a stunning performance, captivating the viewer and single-handedly changing the movie's pace. From there on, the plot starts to gain momentum. The characters no longer seem to be roaming Vienna going from one house to the other to participate in contrived scenes.

As I mentioned above, the cinematography is very good. A large number of the shots are titled and off-angle, giving the viewer a sense of incompleteness and incoherence that helps the film in the second half, although not in the first. A chase scene through the sewers at the end of the film is particularly stunning with its cinematography.

In terms of acting, the bar was set pretty high, first with Laura and then Out Of The Past, and perhaps too high, as The Third Man did not outperform any of the above films. The main actor, Joseph Cotten, was just a bit plain. I'll give the film credit for picking an unlikely looking person to get thrown into the whole mess (which adds a sense of reality to the film), instead of a typical hero. However he simply doesn't succeed in making the character interesting to the viewer. Most of the supporting characters are also not believable outside their few scenes. A truly great supporting character needs to be someone who, no matter how few lines they have, is a fully developed persona, someone you can imaging actually existing. The ones in The Third Man never got that. By far, the best performance is given by Orson Welles. Alida Valli is also very good as Anna, Harry's former lover, who, no matter what truths she's confronted with, cannot stop loving him.

The end of the movie left me rather disappointed. While I was very impressed with the cinematography and directing style, the acting was below par and the first half drags. However, it's worth sitting through because of the aforementioned cinematography and also Orson Welles' amazing performance as Harry Lime. It ranks below Out Of The Past and Laura but above M.

This review pertains to the Criterion Collection 50th Anniversary Edition DVD version of The Third Man.

Remaining Films

1) Sunset Boulevard (Paramount Special Collector's Edition) 1950
2) Strangers On A Train (Two Disc Special Edition) 1951
3) Kiss Me Deadly (MGM Vintage Classics) 1955
4) Rififi (Criterion Collection) 1955
5) The Killing (MGM DVD) 1956
6) High And Low (Criterion Collection) 1963

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About Cameron Graham

  • Scott Butki

    I liked the movie a lot more than you did. I found
    the first hour intriguing, wondering what was going on. Since I’m somewhat familiar with Graham
    Greene I was expecting some double and triple crossing and things to not be as they first appear and was not disappointed. The protagonist is not as innocent as he first appears.

    The lighting is excellent.
    I raided the film section at Borders today and read the reviews by Ebert, NY Times, etc. on Third Man and Out of the Past.

    They pointed out two things of note. One was that
    viewers thought Welles had more time on screen than he really did because he was talked about so much ahead of time. It was quite an impressive acting job and it’s helped by Welles writing his own speech (the “cuckoo clock” one).

    The other is the use of shadowns and black and white. Welles challenged people to mention a great
    acting performance in a color movie and the reviewer couldn’t think of one.

  • “Welles challenged people to mention a great
    acting performance in a color movie and the reviewer couldn’t think of one.”

    Just one? DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Lili Tyler in I Shot Andy Warhol for starters.

    What an idiot reviewer. Was it Joel Siegel by any chance? Hmmm, if he liked everything, he might be here at BC.

  • To be fair, I Shot Andy Warhol had some black and white, so I’ll replace it with Nicole Kidman in To Die For.

    Now that I think about it, when did Welles make this statement? I’ll go back to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

  • Cameron Graham

    Scott – Glad you liked the movie. Myself, I haven’t read any Graham Greene (although I really should), and perhaps that factored into my not enjoying the movie as much as others. If I ever read some Graham Greene, perhaps I’ll go back and watch this again.

    El Bicho – I think that what Orson Welles meant was that B&W highlights the actors, whereas color can sometimes overshadow the performances because it distracts the viewers. It’s almost competing with the actors.

  • Scott Butki

    Welles point was that with color movies you will be distracted more by the colors and what the actors are wearing and other details as opposed to the actual acting.

    When I get a chance I’ll backtrack to figure out the exact comment and reviewer’s name.

  • Scott Butki
  • Scott Butki

    IMDB has a good collection of notes and trivia on Welles. It also touches on the comment I was making:
    “Considered black and white to be “the actor’s best friend”, feeling that it focused more on the actor’s expressions and feelings than on hair, eye or wardrobe color.”

  • It still amazes me that Welles can steal the film so completely with such little screen time. His scenes are almost-unanimously the hightlight, and what a credit to him. Shows that he was not only a brilliant director and writer, but that his acting is up there with the best of Hollywood.

  • Scott Butki

    Exactly. It’s amazing.