BP’s Top 100 Challenge #10: The Third Man, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
The Third Man is another movie I saw in college that I had a very poor memory for. I was glad to get to see it again for the Battleship Pretension top 100 challenge. Even though the title, cover art, and most of the marketing materials for the film are a big spoiler, it is still a very fun mystery to watch. I know very little about Vienna after the war so it was an interesting setting for the film. The language barrier and xenophobia within the city also added some extra drama and hurdles.
I think this is the only film by director Carol Reed that I have seen. I am curious to see more of his work after watching The Third Man again. The film as a whole is beautifully shot but there are some wonderful shots throughout the film that make The Third Man stand out. There is the great shot of the balloon sellers shadow on the buildings growing bigger and bigger as he gets closer. But probably my favorite sequence is when Holly shows up drunk at Anna’s flat and she mentions that her cat only liked Harry. Then we see the cat on the street walk straight to a man hiding in the shadows and curl up on his feet. When Holly leaves he hears the cat and realizes someone is watching him and he starts shouting. A neighbor turns on her light and it illuminates Harry/Orson Welles’ face. It was a clever and very cinematic reveal.
The performances in the film are very strong. Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins is the perfect blend of charming, curious, and bull-headed to make Holly a believable and well-rounded character. His long-term friendship with Harry makes his commitment to solving the murder compelling but also his frustration when he learns what a horrible crime his friend has committed. Alida Valli as Anna is a revelation. She had a lot of chemistry with Holly but she was so heart-broken over Harry that she couldn’t give in to her flirtation. She walked that thin line between cold and warm that gave her performance incredible depth. I was never completely convinced that she wasn’t in on it until the end. I like that she was such a strong female character for the 1940’s. She did what she wanted and she wouldn’t be told what to do by a man.
I was surprised by how little Orson Welles was actually in the film. He gets on good scene on the Ferris wheel and the big chase at the end, but that was about it. Two other smaller performances that I really enjoyed were Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway. Paine is delightful as a fan of Holy’s but also a good cop who treats people well. I’m a big Trevor Howard fan from his work in the film Brief Encounter so I am always delighted to see him in other films. Calloway is also a good cop. He is disturbed and angry about Harry Lime’s crime of watering down penicillin and causing severe health consequences for sick children. He goes to the necessary lengths to bring Lime to justice but he tries to minimize the damage to others along the way. For example, he doesn’t want to drag Anna and her papers into the mix until he had to.
I can’t write about The Third Man and not talk about the soundtrack. Anton Karas’ jaunty “Third Man Theme” plays throughout the film, giving it a distinctly European feel. Often the playfulness of the music is at odds with the action and story on the screen, but it is delightful and gives the film a lot of character. Much of the music is played on the zither, a unique string instrument played by strumming and plucking strings. The zither gives the music in The Third Man its singular sound. I enjoyed the music very much throughout the film.
The Third Man was so fun to revisit. It isn’t a particularly challenging film but it is entertaining, it moves at a quick pace, and the mystery at the heart of it is fun to try and piece together.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
The Third Man ranking: Carrier