The Third Man (1949) 1:40
dir. by by Carol Reed
written by Graham Greene
starring Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee, Wilfred Hyde-White, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto
Robert Krasker won the Academy Award for cinematography, as well he should have. A beautifully shot movie, to say the least. Also the bouncy zither music by Anton Karas is a gem.
The plot? Er...it's complicated, kids.
Perfectly and 100% taut from the title to the end card. It's unusual to see something of such incredible self assurance, such muscle-stretching grace. It's pretty damn impressive. Was it Louis Mayer's method of judging a film that if he all of a sudden realized that his ass was sore from sitting down, something was going awry with the picture? [No, dumbass, it was Harry Cohn at Columbia. Stop pretending to be smart!] It may not have been Louis Mayer, but it's a good measure of a movie's suppleness. If you find yourself no longer in the story, in the movie-world, and instead are becoming conscious of your self...well, there's probably a bad reason for that. I didn't once feel conscious of myself during the entirety of The Third Man. Its world was mine. There are several good reasons for that.
The editing is snappy, the writing is sharp, the glorious cinematography so hyperreal to the point of abstract expressionism, and the visual framing is cock-eyed, tense, jarring in a good way. Sometimes the camera was tilted so much I thought the picture was going to slide right off my TV screen. Surprisingly, as a visual device here it doesn't feel contrived at all. It all hangs together like an act of God. Pretty hypnotic in its charms. The city itself (as pretentious folks like to say when an urban expanse is very sharply rendered), Vienna, is a character in its own right, the post-WWII husk of old Europe. It's such a beautiful thing to look at.
Welles of course steals the show. And he's hardly in it! Very, very few lines. Most of his screen time is occupied with the spectacular chase through the Viennese sewers. It's an odd chase. Such a sympathetic scene for someone who is, at least ostensibly, the picture's villain. You really want him to get away. You feel the shadow of Nazism throughout the sequence, as he's being chased by incredibly Teutonic cops shouting menacingly in German, leading vicious, barking dogs after him. It's strange. But you do feel bad for Welles and are rooting for him when the hordes of German police are chasing after him. You feel terrible. It's like he's being chased by an SS Death Squad. The cops don't at all feel like the forces of righteousness or law, just frightening, ugly power.
The Viennese sewer complex is absurdly lovely and breathtaking. It looks great. The locations in general are a probably one of the strongest pillars holding the movie up. All the shots and scenes that take place in the old-world, postwar streets and bomb craters of old Vienna give the movie a truly continental feel for place that studio-bound productions do not have. I'm thinking specifically of Casablanca's Morocco (not dissing it; just thinking). The fact that Joe Cotten in The Third Man spends so much time just wondering what everyone's saying around him or about him (there are no subtitles)...it really gives you that feeling 'Oh boy, I'm pretty far from home.'