The Third Man (1949)

ThirdManUSPosterI don’t normally review films from before the past fifty years, mainly because I worry that I might have a difficult time getting into them, and also that it might affect the film reviews. However, when I read about this film, I insisted on trying it, and although it’s not as good as a lot of critics say it is, I still found it quite enjoyable in its own right, even if it tends to be a bit of a genre film.

The plot of the film concerns an American pulp novelist who visits Allied-occupied Vienna to look for his friend Harry Lime, who had offered him a job. However, upon arrival in Vienna, he learns that Harry Lime was killed by a speeding truck, and takes it upon himself to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death.

Right off the bat, the film feels like it came from a different time (though saying that would be stating the obvious), a point that is made no clearer than at the very beginning, with the opening narration told in a tone so characteristic of the time it was made. The story was well-told, although I can’t help but feel that it got a bit too distracted by the scenery. Within its almost literary narrative, there isn’t that much excitement, but it moves along at just the right pace, so that it doesn’t seem like it’s just plodding along.

The characters aren’t overly interesting. Yes, there’s Orson Welles as Harry Lime, and many critics would point out his performance, but you don’t really see much of him. The main character comes across as a stock character a lot of the time. Charitably speaking, I’d say that he’s a fairly inept protagonist, but perhaps less charitably I’d say that he acts like a goon wandering about the place. The supporting cast doesn’t exactly rouse much interest either, though the performances were very competent, and sometimes quite good, though I have a feeling that if you took away one of the more important actors, it wouldn’t be as memorable.

Personally, I feel that the film definitely succeeds in terms of style, and that appears to be a general consensus with critics as well. The film depicts a snow-covered, wartorn Vienna, perhaps the ideal backdrop for a rather wintry film. The bleak scenery is used to accentuate the desolation of post-war Europe, as the Cold War loomed over like an ominous, shadowy presence. Of course, the fact that the film was in black and white was the nature of cinematic technology at the time, but I think it adds to the gloomy nature of its setting, even if the film itself doesn’t run on that same tangent. The other thing to note is that the film’s music was composed entirely with a zither – a flat string instrument that predates the guitar. The film’s prominent use of the zither, as opposed to conventional orchestral instruments, gives the film a pleasantly unique atmosphere that must have been the envy of other film’s at the time.

Perhaps I had a difficult time appreciating The Third Man for what it was, but I don’t think it’s bad film. In fact, it was pretty good for what it was, but not as great as other critics might say, and that’s okay. Above all, it was a very interesting cinematic experience, and it’s definitely a stand-out film.

  • Score: 78%
  • Grade: B
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One thought on “The Third Man (1949)

  1. I watched The Third Man for the first time last year and quite enjoyed it. Karas’ iconic score fits perfectly with the film, and no other city comes close to the beauty of four-power, post war Vienna. It’s the finest setting imaginable with it’s sharp angles and looming shadows, and the ruins of war gives it an emotional beauty no filmmaker could design from scratch.
    Everything about this film feels slightly off-kilter, which is perfect because the viewer feels just the same as Holly venturing in for the first time.

    Liked by 1 person

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