Mar 5, 2011

Four Things I Love About "The Third Man"

1. I started watching The Third Man exactly six minutes past midnight on a Friday night, after an 8.5 hour work shift, on my laptop. This is normally a recipe for disaster. It means that I won't get through more than 10 minutes of the film; I’ll leave it for when my mood is better set for watching movies, and most likely, I won’t go back to it anytime soon on the account of a “bad” opening. Ten minutes into The Third Man, I was already engaged in a puzzling murder mystery presented with a flavour of humour that runs through the film to the end. For a film that’s more than sixty years old, The Third Man has remained surprisingly fresh. The comedy hasn’t lost any of its wit and the mystery is so deftly drawn out, one can hardly take eyes away from the screen. Whatever problem you may have with the film, there’s one thing you can’t complain about; Time has not taken its toll on this one.

2. The number of still images that can be singled out from The Third Man and named among the very best in film history is boundless, but the film’s cinematography isn’t just about beautiful images. It’s about how these images define character, mood, atmosphere and the elements of the story. I find it hard to think of another film that uses lighting and shadows so strongly to personify its characters or to progress its narrative. The prime example among many is the introduction of Harry. In the pitch black dark setting of the night, after a quarrel, a building resident opens her window to shush the noises. The light from the window reflects on the face of the villain we (along with Holly) have been so eagerly anticipating. The set-up and the lighting in this scene are divine. The climatic finale of the film, the chase scene in the sewage system is as good as one can ever hope for. Modern action films never match the level of precision put into the cinematography of this sequence.

3. I’ve seen enough films to know that The Third Man is neither the first, nor the last film to use editing techniques or props for exposition. Yet, these expositions (or the lack thereof) are presented so satisfyingly that it distinguishes the film from anything else that employs similar mechanisms. Joseph Cotten’s terrific performance is equally responsible for how all of these scenes play out. One of the best of such scenes is when Holly Martins (Cotten’s character) is taken away by a frantic taxi driver who drives madly through the streets of Vienna, taking Holly to an unknown destination without listening to a word he says. (If you haven’t seen the film, the build-up to the driving scene goes like this: a mob of angry people run after Cotten and his friend when the two arrive at a building hoping to meet the guard, only to find out he’s been killed. Once a little kid points out to them and shouts, people assume they’re to be blamed and run after them, but they get away. Immediately after this scene, we see the shady taxi driver dressed in all black asking a hotel concierge in an angry tone if he knows where Martins is. Upon Martins's arrival at the hotel, the driver takes him.)

The structure of the scene makes us believe that Martins is either being taken to the police or to the actual murderers, possibly Baron Kurtz or Popescu. When the taxi finally arrives at the destination, Martins finds himself an audience ready to listen to his lecture on modern writing, an arrangement he had made earlier but never gave a second thought to, given the circumstances. The editing of this scene along with Cotten’s reaction to the welcoming host of the event makes for a brilliant scene and a much needed comic relief.

These expositions culminate in the best shot of the film – the very last one. Holly, refusing to leave Vienna without resolving his relationship with his love interest, waits by the side of the road she’s taking to meet her for a talk. The single 2-minute long static shot captures her as she walks toward the camera and eventually exits the frame without any contact with Holly. This, in my opinion, is Reed’s ace. The brilliant and subtle editing work plays once more with our imagination and ends the film better than any verbal exchange could.

4. There’s no doubt that Orson Welles is one of the greatest figures in the 20th century cinema. Here, in one of his strongest performances, Welles creates an enigmatic villain without ever stepping over the border. His Harry is both menacing and human. He’s as sly and ruthless as any movie villain, but you can see fear all over his face when he runs for his life. He makes us feel revolted with his “Do you care if one of those dots stops spinning?” as a metaphor for people’s death; but in the final sequence, he makes us feel for him a little bit without ever victimizing the fallen criminal. He knows perfectly how to downplay the monstrosity of Harry with his humour and facetiousness. In a film that is not short of great performances by any stretch of the imagination, Welles stands head and shoulders above everyone else.


  1. Orson Welles' entrance has got to be one of the most iconic in film history. That smirk! It's priceless. Don't you think Joseph Cotten was seriously underrated?

  2. I know!
    I was thinking about that. Even people who love the film (and there's so many of them!) never talk about Cotten's performance.
    He's both great in the dramatic scenes (like the ferry ride with Welles) and with his timing for the humour.

  3. Cotten was briliant.

    I think my favorite scene is the one right before the famous entrance where he makes one last drunken attempt to win Anna's affection. The way he goes from feigning indifference at her disinterest to being very earnest while at the same time admitting he doesn't have a chance - heartbreaking stuff. Fantastic performance.

    My advice: hurry up and watch it again. It gets better on each viewing.

  4. haha i shall i shall.
    for now i'm engaging myself with the three films that nathaniel chose for "hit me with your best shot" plus a few other oldies i've always wanted to watch, like this one.

  5. If I had to do a Best Shot from Third Man my blog would shut down for a week while I struggled with indecision.

  6. tell me about it.
    i had trouble choosing shots for this post, and it's not even about the shots.