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The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)

Directed by: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard

But cuckoo clocks are awesome!

The necessity of a great thriller is starting from the very bottom, with characters oblivious to what will happen to them, almost on the level of the audience, whom are ready for anything once the opening credits fade away, then slowly build up into a finale through conflicts and conversations. The Third Man begins on Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) arriving at postwar Vienna to visit his childhood friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). However, he soon discovers that Harry was killed in a car accident - but suspicion over it increases as a "third man" is said to have carried Lime's body. Martin encounters Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), the heart broken lover of Lime, and the two start to uncover how these certain events were unfolded in the first place.

The reveal of Harry Lime's death is immediate. When we find out, it's less than a few minutes into the entire film. This comes as quite a shock, even if you know the basic synopsis, because the very brief, but original purpose and motive of Holly Martin is instantly removed, including our expectations; a new one is implanted. This effectively sucks viewers into the story about to unfold, and is a huge influence to modern thrillers, such as Miler's Crossing and The Departed.

The Third Man takes place in postwar Vienna, and the portrayal of the inner desolation scattered in a void city is perfect. We never get a full shot looking at the overall look at the city - instead the focus is on the barren, dark and stone-paved streets and low buildings that look like hunchbacks. The ends of streets, leading into unseen nooks, feel as if they would suck in anything that passed nearby and make transform them into an everlasting gloominess. There are shadows all around the ground, most fake, created by invisible souls of unfortunate dead hiding in the walls, shown by dutch angles. This film is one of the most atmospheric ever made, the paths always seem to face downward and the air is heavy - a visual painting brilliantly describing war aftermath, a palette fit for noir.

How I should tackle the main theme of this film is a tough cookie - it fits in so well, yet there is no clear, satisfying way to simply put it. It is extremely ominous, vibrant, with a slight breeze of suspicion and many wrenched hearts in it. Arguably, it can not be explained using a combination of adjectives, because again, it is purely made to be another part of the film. For the majority of the film, whether it's when characters talk or chases happen, the direction of the plot is uncertain. The theme bounces up and down, ranging from a "piano" level of sound to "forte" very fast, thanks to a zither. Even when Harry Lime appears, we are still uncertain if he's playing on a sincere note or a sinister one. Then the music flows, and it all enters our minds.

Harry Lime, Orson Welles' most memorable role, matching with the lasting cultural significance of Charles Foster Kane, doesn't appear until two-thirds of the film have elapsed. This is another innovative move (but now it has become common) by such an influential masterpiece. His appearance is foreshadowed by Anna's cat, but the twist comes from Lime's face when he is caught by a sudden light above. His expression consists of only a calm smile, full of of wisdom but also mischief. Welles' baritone, serene voice is used to it's best. He has become a seller of fake penicillin - but in the process did not lose his original wit and charm that made him become an acquaintance of Holly and Anna.

That's what makes Harry Lime such an interesting villain. He did not appear into the film to declare some sort of dramatic, theatrical revenge on his once allies, or reveal all of the backstory behind the plotting when he or she dies. Lime remains a charming, legendary mystery even after it has been over 60 years since the film's initial release. Shrouded in shadows, slanted by the angles, and covered in fully black attire, Welles' character is a phantom, reborn after the assumed death, and is ready to enter the underworld beneath the stoned path, and eagerly willing to drag in others as well.

The monologue spoken by Lime while trying to convince Martin inside the Prater amusement park Ferris Wheel is not only memorable but is the underlying theme of The Third Man. Shortly after the war was over, the people were still living in a world of sorrow and unexpected death, shady backstreets and already fully adapted to obtaining items through illegal ways and violence. Italy produced an entire artistic movement through endless wars, while peaceful Swiss didn't, so what's wrong with darkness' illusions?

Out of all people, a child carrying a ball falsely accuses Martin of murdering Lime's old butler, and then he is bitten by a parrot for no particular reason relating to the plot, he finds out his old friend is not dead and instead a mastermind criminal, and a woman he had hoped for ends up bitterly leaving him. The Third Man is a depressing, unforgiving, and turns to and travels the sewers. But it also one that is very cool, atmospheric, and thrilling. After all, with a subtly surreal and awesome look at Vienna, a badass villain, twisted, steady, voyeuristic camera movement, believable and intriguing characters, what else do you need. The only thing not perfect about The Third Man is wrong pronunciations of names throughout.