Monday, August 16, 2004

The Third Man

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

This was going to be a "clever" review, going all meta to discuss just how much of the plot of a film classic one should casually let slip when writing about a fifty-five year-old movie. I was going to instant message back and forth with my brother Matt, a college sophomore who probably hasn't seen this film, and present that as the review. After editing out sidetracks about having to rent pants for our brother's upcoming wedding and expanding on movie-related bits, of course. But he wasn't online this weekend, so I'm going to have to go a more conventional route.

The Third Man is a classic. It has infiltrated pop culture to a point where I've seen three or four seperate people using "Harry Lime" as an online indentity/persona over the past few years. The trailer that Rialto cut for its fiftieth-anniversery re-release in 1999 operates under the assumption that its audience knows all about it, and is built around the Big Reveal that happens with about half an hour of the movie's hundred-odd minute running time lef; it's a preview designed for people who already know the movie.

Maybe I'm being unnecessarily circumspect here - after all, Orson Welles does grab third billing in the movie, even though he doesn't have a great deal of screen time, so his part must be crucial. Even back in 1949, there probably wasn't a big Miramax-style "don't tell people the movie's secret" buzz around the movie. still, it would have been nice if when I'd seen it the first time, I'd seen it relatively cold.

Besides, focusing on one splashy, and admittedly fantastic, supporting performance gives short shrift to the rest of the movie. We follow Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, a down-on-his-luck writer of cheap westerns who comes to postwar Vienna when his friend Harry offers him a job, but when he arrives, Harry is dead, struck by a car the previous day. The local authorities are anxious to send Holly back home, but he's read a few too many of his own novels, and starts sniffing around the parts of Harry's death that don't add up.

It's important to keep in mind that The Third Man is a British film, and as such probably represents European sentiment toward America at the end of World War II - Holly is big-hearted and well-meaning, but not terribly bright. He comes to a country where he doesn't speak the language and acts like he knows better than the professionals; the British inspector in charge of the case, Calloway (Trevor Howard) puts up with him because Martins does want to do the right thing, which is perhaps more than can be said for Calloway's Soviet counterpart (occupied cities like Vienna are divided into sectors, each watched over by one of the Allies). After all, it's the smart Americans you have to look out for - the ones like Holly's late friend Harry, who was making a killing on the black market.

And then there's Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). She's as European as they come, and she represents the peculiar loyalties of that time. This beautiful actress (and Harry's lover) doesn't appear to have much trouble transferring her affection from Harry to Holly, but after all, there's just been a war, and men die in wartime. She endeavors to stay away from her home country with Soviet control looming. But she won't betray Harry, even when it becomes clear that Harry had felt no such qualms.

These characters move through a story that is a classic mystery setup. There are visits to crime scenes, gathering of evidence, witnesses eliminated, and plenty of suspects. The uneasy backdrop of how the Soviets seem to be becoming less and less trustworthy allies as times go by makes the question of who can be trusted problematic. War-torn Vienna makes for an intriguing backdrop, as Old World elegance gives way to bombed-out devestation, with lights and traffic being sparse. A Ferris wheel (the same one later used in Before Sunrise) is incongruously innocent - and mostly empty.

To me, the scene which best encapsulates the movie is the final, wordless shot. It's Holly and Anna, and fits them as individuals, but it also represents the collision of American optimism (or arrogance) and European propriety.

That's The Third Man's brilliance. It's mystery, character drama, and metaphor all at once.

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