Review: The Third Man

The Third Man

I’m some way behind, not only in watching films from The List, but also reviewing them!

So, next up is The Third Man, a film I’ve always wanted to see. Dark, noir, spies, death, intrigue, what’s not to like! Roger Ebert said that ‘The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca’, and I totally agree with him. The tone of post-war intrigue fits perfectly into this world.

However, before I laud this film, there is an area where I must disagree with Ebert; in fact with pretty much every reviewer of The Third Man apparently. A strong stylistic choice for the film was to score it for the zither. According to a November 1949 Time magazine article, director Reed wanted music appropriate for post-War Vienna, but not waltzes and thought that the ‘jangling melancholy’ of the zither was perfect.

I hated it. Particularly during tense scenes, it distracted me more than amplifying the mood. I ended up being pulled out of the scenes entirely at times and it made me resentful, this is a film I wanted to remain immersed in. As beloved as the music choice was at the time, I do wonder how a modern audience would react to a similar musical choice for a movie.

But The Third Man is not just about the music and it was beyond strong in its visual narrative. The harsh lighting and distorted ‘Dutch angle’ camera angles, though unpopular with critics at the time, massively add to the mood of the scenes, especially the Escher-esque subterranean finale.

The web of relationships between the characters adds to the tapestry, keeping the viewer intrigued, building up the puzzle a piece at the time.

But when we’re talking about characters, there’s no getting around one simple fact: It’s all about Harry Lime. He’s the antagonist of the movie, but despite his crimes, we like him. We like him a lot. Orson Welles’ mysterious charmer was so popular, there was a spin-off radio show. It wasn’t based Joseph Cotten’s protagonist, but The Lives of Harry Lime.

I think The Third Man will stand the test of time as a film that needs to be seen, not just for a place it held in the history of film, but for its stylistic influences and also a story that still works now. With or without the zither…

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