It’s a new year, people. Time to trade the cowboy hat for the fedora and watch ourselves some noir.
Overall, I enjoyed The Third Man quite a bit.
Western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna to start working for his old childhood pal, Harry. Unfortunately, Harry has just been killed in a car accident, leaving Holly homeless, jobless, and determined to figure out the truth behind Harry’s death. Dun dun DUN.
1. First, I totally wasn’t kidding about that fedora.
I have a fair number of fedoras. I fully expect to bust every single one of them out before the year is through. (Also, hey, look! I’m a blonde now! Well, temporarily, anyway. By the time I actually post this, I may have moved on to purple, which was always the end goal. But it’s fun, right? Look, you know you secretly read these reviews for the frequent status updates about my hair.)
2. Oh, fine. If you just have to hear about the actual movie — well, I could talk about the protagonist, I suppose, but I’d much rather talk about our awesome dynamic duo: Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine.
Oh, you guys. You are totally the best.
Calloway (Trevor Howard) and Paine (Bernard Lee) are both British Army Police living in Vienna. (British Army Police does not sound like a real thing to me, but that’s what Wikipedia calls them, so that’s what I’m going with.) Calloway has this whole stiff upper lip, English scorn thing going for him, and while he’s occasionally a dick, I like him for the most part. He is hilariously manipulative, and his snide little witticisms won over my heart.
Paine, meanwhile, is considerably more amiable than his boss. Even as he’s punching you in the face, he’s terribly friendly about it. He also appears to be the only person in Vienna who’s ever heard of Holly’s books. He and Calloway make a great pair.
3. And yes, there’s Holly too.
Holly (Joseph Cotten) isn’t a terrible guy — he has a couple of moments that I like, and I find him less annoying than my sister did — but it’s true that I wanted to shake him a couple of times, and he’s nowhere near as awesome as Calloway or Paine. I don’t think it’s a performance issue — Cotten seems fine in the role — but it did occur to me that I like Holly’s character arc considerably more than I like his actual character.
4. I kind of feel the same way about our femme fatale, Anna.
Partially, I like Anna (Alida Valli). Maybe even mostly I like Anna. I like the idea of her arc and how her story resolves, but I did find myself a bit frustrated with her reasoning at some points — probably because of my own personal issues that I’ll get into (briefly) during the Spoiler Section.
5. The Third Man won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1949. I approve.
There are some lovely shots in here. Also, there are apparently a shit ton of Dutch angles. I didn’t really notice them because — as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before — my brain apparently sees everything on a slight tilt and refuses to acknowledge Dutch angles unless someone has actually paused the screen and pointed them out to me.
6. The music in The Third Man surprised me a great deal in that it was significantly jauntier than I expected a film noir score to be. (Note: if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to avoid watching the video in the link above because of possible spoilers. You should still click on the link, though, and listen to the music because it’s all whimsical and awesome.)
In my imaginary band, I always figured I’d play the cowbell, but I’m considering expanding my make-believe talents to the zither as well.
7. Finally, an early bid for Worst Fashion?
Seriously, this just makes me sad. That is a horrible jacket, and you’re matching it with a polka dot bow tie? That’s just . . . that is not okay. There is no excuse for this. None. I am ashamed of you, man.
Let’s carry on, shall we?
If you’ve ever watched this movie — or know even a little bit about it — you might be thinking to yourself, Hey, how come you haven’t mentioned Orson Welles yet? You know who he is, right? Kind of an important guy. In fact, leaving out Mr. Welles was a deliberate choice and not an oversight. To help explain why, let me give you the Netflix summary:
“After arriving in a post-World War II Vienna, unemployed pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) learns that his friend, Harry (Orson Welles), has died in an accident. Compelled to investigate the death, Holly slowly uncovers startling revelations about Harry’s life.”
Now I’m not going to bitterly complain too much about spoiling a movie that was made over sixty years ago, but if you tell me from the get-go that Orson Welles plays a dead guy, I do expect to see him at some point, whether in flashbacks or dream sequences or whatever. And if there hasn’t been even the slightest hint of him after thirty minutes of a 93 minute movie . . . well, I’m smart enough to put the pieces together and figure out that poor old Harry isn’t really dead.
But enough of that for now. Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? The Third Man opens with some random English crook narrating at us, which is notable for two reasons. One, it’s hilarious:
Random English Crook: “We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs.”
Random English Crook: “But well, you know, they can’t stay in the course like a professional.”
Poor, dead amateur. I laughed pretty hard at you.
The other reason I bring up the narration is that one of the producers apparently believed American audiences would find such seediness unpalatable, or some nonsense, and changed the whole opener. In this version — that I thankfully did not see — the narration is done by Joseph Cotten, and it apparently cuts out eleven minutes of footage, including anything that might make Holly seem somewhat less than heroic. Lame. I am tired of producers deciding that, as an American, I am not smart enough to deal with a character’s moral ambiguity, or just, you know, character based storytelling in general. (I’m still pretty irritated about the whole Snowpiercer debacle. I had planned to see the movie when it — finally — came out in theater, but now I’m not sure I even want to bother.)
But back to this movie. Holly jumps off the train and navigates himself towards Harry’s place. He doesn’t seem too concerned about this — he’s basically whistling along to Anton Karas’s jaunty score — but I want this to be clear: if I was expecting a friend to meet me in a foreign country, and he didn’t show up? I would be FREAKING OUT. (Admittedly, traveling makes me anxious. I’m in love with the idea of seeing new places, but considerably less enamored with the actual process itself.) At any rate, the happy times music gives out when Holly arrives to discover that his buddy is dead, and he is screwed.
Holly goes to Harry’s funeral. There are a few people of note there, like Mr. Fashion Disaster, and also Anna, Harry’s girlfriend.
Holly doesn’t leave the funeral with Anna, though. Instead he takes off with Calloway, who proceeds to get him drunk and grill him for information. Turns out, Harry had some kind of racketeering business going on, and Calloway isn’t at all sorry that he’s dead. Holly doesn’t take that particularly well and tries to start a fight, so Paine is forced to punch him in the face with the sort of blasé attitude that suggests he’s broken up so many bar fights he could do it blindfolded. I like Paine.
Holly sobers up a bit and starts investigating Harry’s death, despite Calloway’s repeated attempts to get him out of the country. Holly is highly suspicious of the accident, since Vienna is apparently made up of the worst liars in the world. I mean, I’m a pretty shitty liar myself, but then again, I’m not in a business where lying is a requisite skill. Harry’s buddies, however, are professional criminals, and I expect a little more out of them.
For instance, Mr. Fashion Disaster — who reminds me of some strange cross between Robert Knepper and Charles Krauthammer — can do creepy smile like no one’s business, but creepy smile isn’t actually appropriate when you’re trying to convince someone that there isn’t a conspiracy going on.
Not fully trusting the Shifty McShiftersons, Holly talks to Anna. He also quickly falls for Anna because he’s a moron. There’s this one part where he’s moaning that he could be all funny and awesome, and it wouldn’t matter because he still wouldn’t be Harry. And I’m like, Uh, yeah. That’s basically the gist of it. Even if you were half as charming as you apparently think you are, that doesn’t change the fact that she JUST lost the man she loves, and she will not be jumping into your arms just because they happen to be there. Asshat.
On the other hand, I find myself a bit frustrated with Anna because Harry is totally a sociopathic shit, and she loves him anyway.
Turns out, Harry wasn’t just involved in some petty crime, like Holly wanted to believe. Harry stole a bunch of penicillin, diluted it, and sold it on the black market, which caused a ton of people — including a bunch of kids — to either die or get very, very sick. So yeah. Not a great guy, that one. And actually, I’m all about stories where characters have to make the choice to stand beside their loved ones or go against them because it’s the right thing to do — my problem here is that I also have something of a sore spot when it comes to women who protect worthless and harmful men simply because they love them.
In Anna’s defense, she does say she wants nothing to do with Harry anymore. She just can’t be the person who stabs him in the back because she loved him, and I suppose a part of her always will. Which I get, it’s just . . . difficult. Honestly, I probably would have been far less frustrated if Anna showed this kind of devotion to her brother or father or almost anyone else, rather than her lover. I’m not saying that’s rational, just that it’s true for me. The ‘heart wants what it wants’ is not an argument that tends to win me over.
Regardless, Holly is still going to win the ‘slapped with a smelly, dead fish’ award since he’s totally the one that gets this old guy killed.
See, the official story on Harry’s supposed death goes like this: Harry got hit by a car, and two dudes carried him to the side of the road, where he was very briefly conscious before dying. But there’s an eyewitness who saw three men at the scene of the crime. The eyewitness lied to the police because he doesn’t want to be mixed up in all this shit. So, what does Holly do? He goes to the Shifty McShiftersons and tells them all about it, not just what the eyewitness saw but who he is.
Of course, this guy doesn’t do himself any favors by later shouting out his window that he wants to tell Holly more secret things when there aren’t so many ears around — but his death warrant has already been signed because the second he turns around, someone is there waiting to kill him. So yeah, Holly. Thanks for fucking nothing.
Then there’s a whole thing about how everyone thinks Holly killed the eyewitness — I guess because some little cute boy saw them together and assumed? I don’t know. I mean, the kid’s totally adorable, and the scene where Holly and Anna are running from a child-led mob is kind of amusing, but it does feel a little out of place and irrelevant to the rest of the story.
Holly and Anna hang at her place for a while. Anna’s cat doesn’t particularly like Holly, which is important because the cat apparently only ever liked Harry. We then see the cat jump out the window and run to a man encased in shadows, so we know who he is even before we get to see his face. And while I wish I hadn’t figured it out ahead of time, I still really like the reveal. I think The Third Man works well whether you know the twist or not because the twist isn’t the whole point of the story. It’s not like BOOM! the end or anything. There’s still a good half hour to go afterwards. Which, honestly, is kind of how I like my twisty stories in the first place: surprising, but not solely relying on the shock factor.
Holly leaves Anna’s apartment and sees Harry. Harry disappears, and Holly tells the police. Shockingly, they believe him, or at least enough to get Harry’s grave exhumed. There’s a stiff in there, but it sure ain’t Harry.
Holly talks to our favorite Shifty McShiftersons again and tells them he wants to see Harry. The two old chums meet up at this big ferris wheel and take a ride in it.
It’s a great scene. Harry is completely unapologetic about the shit he’s put Holly through, not to mention totally threatens to kill him. He also clearly doesn’t care about the people he’s indirectly hurt, nor is he particularly remorseful about tipping off the police on Anna’s forged paperwork. (She’s an illegal immigrant.) He does offer Holly a job, which is nice of him, I guess — but he wants the police kept out from here on in.
Holly, ignoring this, goes straight to the police — but can’t make himself give Harry up until he overhears the plan to deport Anna. He makes a deal: he’ll set up Harry if Anna goes free. The cops agree, but when Anna finds out, she’s furious. (She finds out because the police put her on a train, and Holly decides to see her off, like a dumbass. When she spots him, Anna gets off the train and questions him until she can put the pieces together. Seriously, Holly, you’re useless, man.)
As much as I personally struggle with Anna’s love for Harry, I do really like that she refuses to be the damsel here, or the price for Holly’s betrayal. She’s a pretty strong female character and very consistent. I only wish I had some reason why she loved Harry as much as she does, which I guess might have been hard to work into this particular story. (You can argue it has something to do with Harry helping forge her passport, although since he later screws her over on that, it doesn’t seem like the best reason. Actually, I’m not sure if Anna ever puts that together, that Harry’s the one who ratted her out to the cops.)
Anna’s disgust with Holly gets to him, and he tells Calloway that he can’t go through with it, backstabbing his buddy and all. Calloway’s like, “Yeah, man. I get it. Look, I’ll drive you to the airport, but first let me just do a quick errand, all right?” (But you know. He says it more Britishly.) Calloway then proceeds to drag Holly to the deformed and dying children’s ward where he can see what Harry’s handiwork has caused. Holly’s like, “Dude, you win.”
Holly sets up a meet with Harry. Harry comes, but so does Anna. She warns Harry to run away. Harry tries to kill Holly, but Payne comes in time. The police chase Harry down into the sewer system, which is this gigantic, crazy, labyrinthian thing — and, I assume, what LA Noir was homaging in the final act of the game. I do feel like the chase scene goes on for a bit long, but there are a number of shots I really like in there.
And — as we all knew would happen — Awesome Paine gets killed.
It’s not that there’s any obvious foreshadow, or that Paine incessantly talks about his family or something silly like that — he’s just too friendly and likable, and is clearly marked for death. Harry kills Paine, and Calloway shoots Harry. While Harry staggers off and Calloway kneels over his dead friend, Holly takes up Paine’s gun and goes running after his friend. I . . . have a bit of a hard time believing any cop, certainly one as seemingly competent as Calloway, would ever let a civilian just chase after a criminal on his own with only the warning to be careful and not hesitate . . . but I’ll let it slide this time because Calloway is clearly grieving the loss of the dynamic duo along with me. Damn you, Carol Reed. Damn you to hell.
Harry worms his way up some stairs and tries to escape through a sewer grate, but he’s too weak to open it.
There are a lot of nice shots in this sequence. I’ll say it again — I’m very impressed with the photography in this movie, especially because that’s the kind of thing that often escapes me on a first viewing.
Holly catches up but hesitates to shoot him. Harry, knowing he can’t escape, nods at Holly, basically giving him permission. (So. Good.) We cut back to Calloway, and we hear the gunshot.
We then proceed to Harry’s second and more permanent funeral. There is some absolutely wonderful symmetry here from the beginning of the movie, right up to Calloway giving Holly a lift and driving past Anna as she walks on the side of the road. Calloway is finally going to drop this man off at the airport, like he’s been threatening to do all movie, but instead Holly asks to be let out and leans back, waiting for Anna. And in possibly one of my favorite film endings of all time, Anna walks straight past him without even so much as turning her head to acknowledge him.
Apparently, Graham Greene — who wrote both the screenplay and the novella — wanted Anna and Harry to get together at the end, or at least hint they would eventually reconcile. I cannot express enough how much I would have hated that ending. The whole film would drop a letter grade, at least. Like I said before, I have my own issues with Anna, but to me this is very much a story about deciding which is the right thing — do you stand by your loved ones, or do you stand for your principles? If Anna just decided at the end of the movie that Holly had been right all along . . . my review would have been scathing. Certainly if she just jumped into his arms, like their romance hasn’t clearly been one-sided this whole film.
Thankfully, we get the unhappy ending instead. Because the so-called “happy” ending? Yeah, not really all that happy. Also bullshit.
Harry: “Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Calloway: “Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”
Holly: “Mind if I use that line in my next western?”
Anna: “Oh please, for heaven’s sake. Stop making him in your image. Harry was real. He wasn’t just your friend and my lover. He was Harry.”
Calloway: “Don’t hit him again if he behaves.”
Holly: “You were in love with him, weren’t you?”
Anna: “I don’t know. How can you know a thing like that afterwards?”
Holly: “Have you ever seen any of your victims?”
Harry: “You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.”
Calloway: “You were born to be murdered.”
Harry: “What did you want me to do? Be reasonable. You didn’t expect me to give myself up . . . ‘It’s a far, far better thing that I do.’ The old limelight. The fall of the curtain. Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.”
Holly: “I was going to stay with him, but he died Thursday.”
Crabbins: “Goodness, that’s awkward.”
Holly: “Is that what you say to people after death? ‘Goodness, that’s awkward’?”
British MP: “I’m sorry, miss. It’s orders. We can’t go against protocol.”
Anna: “I don’t even know what protocol means.”
British MP: “Neither do I, miss.”
Holly: “You used to believe in God.”
Harry: “Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.”
Anna: “If you want to sell your services, I’m not willing to be the price.”
I liked it. I have one or two issues, mostly nitpicks, but I enjoyed it a lot, and I think I’ll grow to like it even more on repeat viewings, the way I do with some movies.
MOST DESERVES TO BE SLAPPED WITH A BIG, DEAD, SMELLY FISH:
Love isn’t everything. Except when it is.
Also, maybe don’t tell obviously shady people your informant’s name? Honestly, Holly. Aren’t you supposed to be a writer? You should know these kinds of things.