#68: The Third Man [1949]

The story starts with American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arriving in a post-war Vienna where the policing and therefore the city itself is divided between the four Allies. Martins' friend and would-be host, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has just died in a road accident and the military police (represented primarily by the
English Major Calloway [Trevor Howard]) are glad to be rid of the renowned racketeer. Only, Martins isn't happy with having his good friend's name besmirched and neither is he happy with the official story of this "accident". The mystery, intrigue and of course the love interest sub-plot with Fraulien Anna Schmidt (Allida Valli) all interweave and escalate as we follow Martin in his efforts to clear his friend's name and identify the third man at his death. Screenwriter Graham Greene keeps control of the tale's narration wonderfully; while the ending is not easily guessed, neither is there that general air of over-done confusion which crime dramas are apt to create.
I'd forgotten how funny this film is at times. The comic elements are judged to perfection and are not forced for an extra "dynamic", as we so often have to endure. Be it the timing of the actors, the wit of Greene's dialogue, or an added touch from director Carol Reed the humour flows naturally, without stealing the show and serving to give a comfortable feel to the proceedings.
Being "comfortable" shouldn't be the aim of a crime film, however. Throughout The Third Man I felt perfectly at ease, no tension or shivering with a sense of anticipation. I simply waited for the end and the explanation to arrive. This could be because I'd watched the film before, but my horrific memory serves me well on that point as I couldn't for the life of me remember the twist (though I knew there would be one). I feel more inclined to point the finger at the rather lazy characterisation: the baddies have mean eyebrows and the goodies are jolly decent chaps. With the principled and persistent Martins on the case and a competent law enforcer there to back him up, we never doubt that the situation will be dealt with properly. I can't decide whether this is a failing or simply the way the filmmakers wanted it. It all makes for a relatively easy watch, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself.
I can't close without referring to that infernal score which is so celebrated. Some light-hearted zither twanging and all the potential suspense flies out the window. It's as though Martins is floating down the road in pursuit of potential murderers. At times it fits the mood and is sort of stirring, I suppose, but after an hour we want a different instrument, or at least a different flipping refrain.