Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Third Man (1949) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels. The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca. Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But Casablanca is bathed in the hope of victory, while The Third Man already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

I was hoping to redeem myself after my relatively muted response to Casablanca by falling head over heels for its British mystery thriller descendant The Third Man, which seems equally lauded as One of the Greatest Films of All Time. The Third Man boasts the same fast talking, hard drinking, manly noir efficiency of Casablanca, although its depressive post-war exhaustion is tonally different from the Humphrey Bogart classic’s wartime unease. I found myself technically impressed, but emotionally disengaged by both works, unable to echo their set-in-stone praise as the best of what cinema has to offer. I suppose the film’s dizzying Dutch angles and classic noir attention to lighting are largely what elevate it above most pulpy mysteries that were being produced in its era, but that visual flair only took me so far as a modern audience. The Third Man is undeniably a well-made film in terms of craft, but I’m failing to connect with it as an essential, rewarding cinematic experience.

An American pulp novelist arrives in a post-war Austria looking to meet with a dear old friend, Harry Lime. He discovers that Harry Lime has died in a suspicious car accident, where everyone at the scene knew the man personally in some way. Especially disturbed by the report of an unidentified “third man” present at the scene, the American novelist embarks on a vigilante mission that mirrors the kind of genre fluff he writes for a living. In the process he learns some shocking, damning things about Harry Lime’s post-war racketeering and makes the mistake of falling in love with Lime’s girlfriend, who remains true to him even in death & among accusations of his unscrupulous racketeering (which lead to many more deaths). Harry Lime becomes a sort of mythic legend during this investigation, both in the exposure of his crimes & in the endless repetition of his name. The mystery of how he died is gradually swapped out for the mystery of who he was as a person, a question that only can be answered in the grimmest of terms.

Besides its forward-thinking (and sideways-leaning) cinematography, I suspect The Third Man is a movie remembered mostly as a collection of iconic moments, the same way Casablanca plays like a greatest hits collection of Old Hollywood dialogue. Some of these moments worked especially well for me, including a movie-stealing speech from a maniacal Orson Welles in the third act and a couple chase scenes that lead to unexpected hideouts like a Ferris wheel or a movie theater or an applauding literary audience. Occasionally, though, I’d have to scratch my head over the movie’s reputation, like when the most shrill, annoying child actor in the history of shrill, annoying child actors accuses our American makeshift gumshoe of murder in a piercing whine. I was also confused by the praise of the film’s zither soundtrack, which gives it the comedic shrug of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, completely cutting the tension of watching our protagonist get in major trouble by asking too many questions. Ebert went out of his way to praise the zither’s influence on the film, writing “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man? […] The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” I don’t understand at all where he’s coming from, but I doubt he’s alone in believing that.

There’s a really interesting post-war tone that commands a lot of The Third Man (when it isn’t being disrupted by children & zithers). Piles of rubble and greedy profits made from people’s suffering in a time of crisis lurk in the movie’s fringes, rarely directly playing into the plot the way it does in Casablanca, but often overpowering the impact of the central murder mystery. Major twists in that central mystery never meant more to me than that post-war gloom, but the two narratives do compliment each other nicely. Like with Casablanca, I’m willing to accept that a few rewatches might be necessary to fully appreciate The Third Man as an all-time classic, but the film’s murder mystery reveals will likely only dull in those revisits. It’s the post-war exhaustion that’s going to matter more in the long run (along with the film’s bold visual aesthetic). The doomed romance at the heart of Casablanca sounds a lot more pleasant to experience on loop, though, so for now I’ll just have to continue to damn this film by calling it merely very good.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

  1. Pingback: Blood Bath (1966) | Swampflix

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