I think we can say, safely and not unkindly, after 65 years, that whatever the merits of zither music, it is not really a suitable instrument for expressing the suspense and tragedy of a classic film noir. Although, in fairness, this is my third viewing of The Third Man and the first on the big screen, and the zither is actually the least annoying that I can remember it.
I recall being driven to distraction on my first viewing. As The Boy, viewing the film for the first time put it, it’s too whimsical. Which is a shame, because otherwise this is a near perfect film.
But perhaps that’s just a #confessyourunpopularopinion moment for me.
I’ve heard it claimed that this is not a noir movie, and the zither music is proof of that, which is an interesting, if completely bonkers, theory.
The story is that hack pulp writer Holly (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt) has flown to Vienna because old pal Harry has offered him some sort of employment which, apparently, Holly can’t find in post-WWII America.
And this is one of those movies, by the way, where you begin to speculate on these kinds of details. Was it because Holly’s a bit of a goldbricker? Is it because Harry represents an adventurous, exciting life? Is it something they just overlooked in their shoddy plotting? Everything seems so well put together, it’s hard to consider writer Graham Greene (The End of the Affair, The Quiet American) just “overlooking” something. And this is one of the few movies based on his works that he actually wrote the screenplay for.
Anyway, Holly shows up and Harry’s dead. Hit by a car. His own driver even and purely accidental don’tcha know. He died instantly, after which he said nice things about Holly. And three—no, two—men carried him to the side of the road. In other words, everyone’s acting suspicious and Holly begins to obsess about the third man, even as he uncovers his old pal Harry’s roguish-or-possibly-murderous schemes.
Alida Valli (Eyes Without A Face, Suspiria) is the femme fatale, and while there’s some tension between her and Holly, he’s pretty hapless compared to the dashing Harry. Greene fought with director Carol Reed (Oliver!, Night Train To Munich) over the the romantic fate of these two, with Reed ultimately winning out—though I think Greene went to his grave thinking it was a mistake.
The movie is beautifully shot, with cinematographer Robert Krasker rightfully winning an Oscar against legends All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Even so, the movie really makes it shift from solid noir to timeless classic when Orson Welles makes his grand entrance—an iconic movie moment if there ever was one—and the photography and Welles’ performance meld to create a sublime aesthetic.
Handsome, charming, seductive, and so much smarter than everyone else, we simultaneously see how he manipulates the other characters and begin to take a different view of those characters, based on their relationships to him.
Meanwhile, the shadows are growing longer, the lighting is getting more stark, the dutch angles are getting…dutcher.
The movie ends with a chase through the sewers of Vienna that is quick-cut after quick-cut (something that can drive me nuts when done poorly) where every shot is beautifully and perfectly composed, even if it’s visible for 2 seconds or less. Honestly, the last 30 minutes of this film is better than the best of most other movies, and easily better than all the CGI e’er made.
It was the number one film in the UK for 1949—and try to imagine what that world must have been like, if you can in a world where you have to go back to 1996’s Trainspotting to find a non-cartoon at #1 Box Office in the UK—and remains the BFI’s number one British film.
The Boy was impressed.