The Third Man (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene
Actors: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli
Reviewing old movies is always hard for me. On one hand I understand the limited technology that they had along with maybe a limited scope on what they are actually able to do. However, on the other hand I think of films like A Trip To The Moon, Modern Times, Citizen Kane, or any Hitchcock movie and think to myself "but those ones are still timeless". They were able to stand the test of time and still offer something no matter how much time has passed. I think a big criteria for me whenever I review an old film is "does it stand the test of time". Is it still enjoyable after all these years. I still know in the back of my mind about the limitations they had. Yet, I don't let it become a handicap for the film and it ends up getting a better score than it deserves. Because at the end of the day, if a film is not enjoyable or not worth watching, then why bother?
I don't really know what tempted me to watch The Third Man. I have been sick for the past couple of days and I just wanted to lay back and watch something. This was fairly recently added to my watch-list and I have got to say that I enjoyed my time with this film. As soon as the film started I thought this was going to be another murder mystery with the same twists and the same cliches that you always see from films of this era. But I was pleasantly surprised by what this picture had to offer. On the surface it seems to be a simple crime drama about a man trying to figure out the strange death of his friend. However, the film has a lot of deep and philosophical and moral dilemmas that actually stir the mind of the viewer.
These underlying philosophical questions really fit in with the story. Holly Martins, at first is confused about why the police is not investigating his friend's strange death. He feels like they are neglecting an obvious case of murder and that they have no morals by slacking off on this issue. As the story progresses he soon finds out the true nature of his friend Harry and how he is a person who indulges in dishonest acts. The main one being a scandal involving penicillin that has caused hundreds of children and mothers to end up hospitalized. The moral struggle inside Holly's head is evident as he discovers this. He has been friends with Harry for 20 years, however, he cannot deny the horrible things that he has been up to. Once he realizes Harry is alive, the struggle continues. He meets up with Harry and an interesting conversation arises. Harry sees himself as a necessary evil. He brings up examples from history of how bad things ultimately give birth to great outcomes. He then goes on and talks about the moral aspect of erasing dots in exchange for a large sum of money. Those dots obviously being people affected by the penicillin. We see that Harry has detached himself from reality, and he no longer empathizes with what is happening around him. He is blinded by his own guilt. As this conversation goes on we see some struggle within Holly's mind. The way Harry puts it makes it seem less menacing than it actually is. However, Holly ultimately triumphs over these ill thoughts and turns back to the right path. He agrees to give up his friendship and bring justice to the world. This decision was not an easy one to make, because I believe it is what cost him the girl at the end, and why she ignored him when he waited for her. All in all, The Third Man is not a story about a murder, it is a story of morals and ethics. One that asks whether or not you would do the right thing if put in that position. And I feel like that makes it special.
Other than the philosophical aspects I talked about above, the film has a lot more going for it. First and foremost, the story. As I previously said, I thought this was going to be a run of the mill classic crime drama. However, I was genuinely surprised with the direction the film took. I did not expect the film to go the way that it did, and I was happy that it surprised me. Other than that, I also enjoyed a lot of the visuals. Especially the final chase scene. It was riddled with these beautiful black and white static shots that could easily be framed and put on a wall. I can't really say that about the first half of the film, but it was definitely ahead of its time. Especially the final scene, I thought it was beautifully shot. Something I did not enjoy however was the soundtrack. I seriously cannot understand why so many films of this era would use upbeat and cheery music for really sad and serious issues. I have seen countless films of this era that has had music you would hear in a Chaplin movie put in a very suspenseful crime drama. It just doesn't work, and it kills the mood instantly. In this film for example, during the funeral scene, or the first time Holly saw Harry, we got this really upbeat and cheery track that killed off any feeling of suspense the film tried to build. This will forever be a major gripe for me with films of this era and I don't think that will change. Overall though, the film impressed, especially with it being from the late 40's.
The Third Man is a weird one. The film started out with me rolling my eyes thinking I knew the direction the film was going in. Then I was met with genuine surprise as it started to veer off into something deeper than I ever expected. Couple that with very interesting cinematography, especially towards the end, and interesting philosophical and moral themes. All of that combined makes this film great. You shouldn't skip this one, it's great.