Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Noir Watch: The Third Man (1949)

In general, it seems that at some point someone will suggest The Third Man (1949) to you.  I know the name had been thrown at me for years, especially when I started digging into film noir, but there seemed to be a certain lack of availability to the movie, and I wasn't going to just buy it on DVD of Amazon, site unseen.

new poster by ace artist Francesco Francavilla

A year or three ago, it was included in the Paramount Summer Film Series, our local grand theater's showcase of classic film.* Jamie and I went and saw it, sitting up in the balcony (my prime spot).  And while I often watch and enjoy a movie, it is all too rare that I go back to that place where I can both become utterly absorbed in a movie and enjoy the construction of the movie simultaneously.  these days, even if I enjoy the hell out of a movie - let's say Captain America 2, for example, I'm generally just enjoying watching a fun entertainment with characters I like, blowing up floating aircraft carriers and whatnot.

But The Third Man takes me not just back to how much I liked the parts of a film during film school, but wanting to take it all apart and look at how it's assembled - the reason I wanted to go to film school - more to learn how it all worked more than I suspect I ever really had any intention of going off to be the next jodhpur-clad director that America did not need.

The funny thing is, this is only the second time I've seen it.  And, again, I saw it in the theater, this time as the 4K restoration that's currently touring.  Your mileage will vary regarding whether you think this restoration was a good thing or not.  Having only seen the movie twice, both times on the big screen, and - I assume - both times as digital projections (the Paramount does not have a hard and fast 35mm projection rule as the Alamo does, where they try to default to the film's original medium unless otherwise states such as this presentation), the film looked even better to me, but certainly not to the point of distraction.

And it will be no secret, a shot or three into the movie, that both the camera work and what's in the frame are there to drive the story as much or more than any line of dialog.  I'd call in the readers I've got who work in the field to talk shop on this one, because while I can certainly cite German Expressionism as an influence, but that seems like a blunt instrument for talking about the brilliant choice of angles in an all-too-real post-WWII Vienna, thrown into deep relief with phenomenal lighting.

The movie takes place in an occupied, defeated city of former wealth, with tremendous feats of architecture and art alongside mounds of rubble and dust.  People barely mill about by day, and by night, there is no one walking, no cars.  Even the nightclubs are conspicuously, terribly empty, a reminder of the faded glory of both the war years and before, now just a faint echo of glory days.  The perfect nest for our cadre of characters.

Holly Martins is a pulp-western novelist who doesn't think much of his own output, who is reserved and amiable if bumbling when sober, and when he's drinking, which is frequent, brash and reckless.  Played by anyone else, the differences would be broad and obvious, but Martin is played by an actor who I've added to my list of favorites in the past ten years or so - Joseph Cotton - who brings a curve to the personality changes in subtle ways, depending on where Holly is in his drunk.  Broke, he's come to Vienna at the request of a childhood friend, Harry Lime, who, upon arriving, he learns has been killed in an automobile accident.

While there's an official story, Holly hears just enough to make him start asking questions, made all the more difficult by the language barrier and multi-national police presence's seeming delight that Lime went ahead and removed himself as a problem.  Of course there's a girl - Harry's girl - and she seems positively lost in the wake of his passing.

The music is this oddly disquieting zither music, sort of jolly against the bleak visuals, but it works.  An echo of how odd Harry Lime and his generally amiable person seem at odds with the story that unfolds.

I don't want to share too much more.  Even small bits, whether they drive the story forward or not, are all pretty solid bits of gold, right down to an unexpected appearance by a parrot.  And there's a lot of throw away dialog that's really pretty funny, and a few speeches that are just absolutely phenomenal.

I don't know why I've not seen more of either director Carol Reed's work (the only other one of his movie's I've seen was Oliver!), nor cinematographer Robert Krasker's photography.  It's just strange.  And as much as I deep like the story of The Third Man, and even without the excellent acting and directing of the thing, the story holds up remarkably well - but it's also a movie film students should be looking at to see how it's done, camera-wise.  Just remarkable stuff, deeply influential but still barely matched elsewhere.

* late edit:  I just found my post on this from almost exactly 3 years ago, and apparently I liked it this much then, too.


picky said...

Yes, yes, and yes. I've always loved film as a medium. Really good films, even when I was super young, but it wasn't until I took my first film class that it hit me like a ton of bricks that film was just as much art as my favorite novels I loved to analyze. And breaking it down to camera angles and light and shadow just amazed me.

This film, in particular, is a great one for looking at in that manner. So damn good.

The League said...

You could write a thesis on the movie, easily, which is why I didn't want to get into too many specifics. But the character of Anna Schmidt is amazing. Maybe not the smokey-eyed femme fatale you might think of like Gardner in "The Killers", or Jane Greer in "Out of the Past", but the character is totally flipped the second time you watch the movie, but it's all there. It's your expectations for how this normally works - that you share with Holly - that trips you up.