The Third Man (1949)

January 10th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

This pocket review kicks off the Winter ’03 season as I have one class on “Spy Movies of the ’60s” and another on “Asian-American Cinema.”

Not a spy film, and not made in the ’60s, The Third Man stands on the cusp of the genre as a Cold War thriller without spies but with many of the eventual trappings of a spy flick: a divided city (Vienna), intrigue, doublecross, faces appearing out of shadows, looming silhouettes on the walls, and a dawning sense of confusion over the new political rules of the post-war world reflected through canted camera angles and bizarre, gnome-like children. Orson Welles is menacing in a chipper sort of way.

The first and second acts are fine and engaging storytelling, but the third act is a gorgeous series of night chases and a remarkable denouement that communicates pages without even moving the camera as the last bit of cowboy pretension our hero indulges is brushed aside by a woman’s scorn.

Graham Greene wrote the screenplay and a novella of the same title. The film plays better than the book reads, but the akward and mildly ridiculous main character is lost to a hair too much leading man gravitas by Joseph Cotten, who simply doesn’t look like the permanent adolescent Greene intended.

The soundtrack, zither music by Anton Karas, is also excellent.

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