Don’t let Orson Welles’ magnificent performance or massive legacy fool you – this is Carol Reed’s masterpiece.
Carol Reed, an English filmmaker in the midst of World War II, was not only the forgotten, missing man in the legend of The Third Man, he is the third man. The mystery figure initially lost in the shuffle. Reed got his just due, his Palme d’Or and his British Academy Award at the time, but from a historical perspective Welles overshadows Reed’s accomplishments.
In this film Welles gives one of his many trademark performances, playing alongside the lead actor of the film and the man who’s career Welles built, Joseph Cotton.
At first glance, many of Reed’s stylistic choices seem Orson-esque – adventurous editing, bold camera angles and a penchant for dramatic zooms are prevalent. Reed even admitted to Orson’s strong influence over him. These factors are somewhat tragic. Orson doesn’t need The Third Man in order to be remembered, but if the general public associated it with Reed instead, the man could be the legend that he deserves to be.
The Third Man is the foundation of film-noir. There were benchmarks before it and benchmarks after it, but it is the perfect summation of what came before and instantly became the standard for all that would come after.
From the captivating first notes of Anton Karas’ zither (kind of a guitar/harp hybrid) to the endlessly shiny streets of post-war Vienna, the movie could be watched with a “Staples of Noir” checklist and leave little unmarked. Reed establishes a visual style that remains the standard sixty years into the genre.
The film’s post-World War II Vienna setting is a true Zietgeist of the late 40’s, and absolutely captivating to watch. It is a land ravaged by war, forever changed by mankind’s violence. Reed puts a lot of emphasis on this idea of dark transformation, juxtaposing the character’s journey into the unknown with Vienna, and by extension, Europe’s journey into that same unknowing. It is a grim time, just as it is a grim time in Holly Martin’s (Cotton) life, as he navigates the unending tale of deception that Harry Lime (Welles) has left him.
I mean no hyperbole in stating that one can rarely be treated to something at the caliber of The Third Man. It may be the single standout film in Reed’s career of good films, but it is also an absolute standout in the history of all movie making. At once a template, a statement, and an experience. It doesn’t only define a career and a genre, it defines an art form.
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