The Third Man

May 18, 2010
I love the noir genre, and The Third Man may be one of the greatest entries of the genre - if not one of the greatest films of all-time. The film's flawless in every way - from its gripping characters to its mysterious atmosphere to its fantastic camerawork. The entire movie's so gripping, and the experience of watching it simply captures the best that cinema has to offer. It's smart, entertaining, involving, fun, and amazing in all of its elements.

The film follows Holly Martins, an author of pulp Western fiction in the U.S., as he arrives in post-WWII Vienna, Austria. The devastated city, still recovering from the war, is separated into several different sections, with each section led by a different member of the victorious Allies along with a jointly-administered international zone. Martins isn't involved with politics, however, as he's instead searching for his friend - Harry Lime - who's offered him work in Vienna. What begins as a simple job search, however, quickly turns sour upon the revelation that Lime was recently killed. Not only that, but it's possible that Martins' old friend may have had connections with a number of racketeers and other assorted criminals. What follows is an exciting twist of deceit and crime as Martins digs deeper into the mystery of Harry Lime.

This film's characterization is SO good. It's easy to fall in love with our leading characters because of how much time we're given with them. So, naturally, we as an audience become just as glued to this mystery as Martins is, relishing every twist, turn, and shock. Backed up by an awesome script and great performances, the characters in this movie really stand out exceptionally. Part of what makes the script so sensational is because that it was actually written by those who had seen, first-hand, the devastation of Europe during WWII. This isn't the world of Martins' black-and-white morality Western stories, as everything exists in shades of gray in Vienna. That's one of the film's main themes, actually. If a corrupt man does something for the good of his country, does that make him a better man? What is democracy? Does the death of a civilian really matter, so long as the "greater good" is reached? If a corrupt man is a great leader, should his rule be questioned? The Third Man asks so many questions in its great narrative, all the while keeping any answers shrouded in shadow.

The visuals look fantastic as well. The use of lighting and shadow is terrific, especially during the sequences that take place in Vienna's dark and crumbling streets. The camerawork's fantastic too, as it gives off a feeling of disjointedness that's obviously a reference to the city's lack of structure. Everything simply looks marvelous in the film, and the style is top-notch noir. With elongated shadows, lingering shots of silhouettes, and the small use of light, the film's visuals perfectly reflect the tone of the film.

I don't usually like referring to other critics in what I write, but Roger Ebert said something once about this film that I can't help but marvel at. In many ways, The Third Man feels very much like a cynical aftermath of Casablanca. Both feature confused protagonists in international zones during (or after) WWII that are littered with criminals. The key difference between the two, however, lies within each film's tone. While Casablanca ends one a note of hope, The Third Man leaves us with anything but hope. It's not a happy ending, and the first signs of Cold War paranoia can be seen in the film's bitter ending.

Moving on, though, the film's pacing is great. Smooth, to the point, and always keeping the viewer on his/her toes, the film knows how to entice its audience. We're glued to what's happening to these characters in this forlorn city, and the experience of the mystery is completely engrossing. Even if you've seen the film before, you'll find that the film still retains that air of suspicion despite those many viewings.

Everything about this film is incredible. It's flawless in every way. Fantastic characters, an interesting style and atmosphere, great visuals, and an engrossing pace make The Third Man a great noir and a great film of suspicion, paranoia, confusion, and turmoil.

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