Saturday, January 22, 2011

Weekend Movies, Part III

The Third Man (1949)
Despite the wide variety of movies I've seen over the years (especially since I joined Netflix), I'm ashamed to admit that this is my first film noir. Well, I guess it could be my second if one were to assume that Fritz Lang's M (1931) counts as film noir. I think M is usually considered to be proto-noir, though.

The film is set in post-World War II Vienna, which has been divided into four zones under the control of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, respectively. Western writer Holly Martins (who's male, despite his name) arrives in Vienna expecting to get a a job with his friend Harry Lime. However, he quickly learns that his friend was hit by a truck and killed a few days before. While looking for information on what happened to his friend, Major Calloway of the British Army contingent informs him that Lime was a racketeer. Specifically, he was stealing penicillin from the local hospital through a now missing inside man and selling it on the black market. The penicillin at the hospital was diluted to hide the theft, which led to numerous deaths and medical complications. Martins can't believe that his friend would be involved in such a thing and begins to investigate the details of the accident.

During his investigation, he comes across several of Lime's friends, who give him conflicting stories and seem to be of questionable character. Their stories do agree that only two of Lime's friends were present when he was hit, but this conflicts with the statement by a porter that there were actually three men with him at the time of the accident. This porter is murdered shortly after confessing what he saw. Martins soon begins to seek out this third man in order to question him. Lime's girlfriend, Anna, for whom Martins begins to have feelings, urges him to forget about the whole thing and to return to America.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

One evening, after leaving Anna's apartment, Martins realizes that he's being followed. The person following him turns out to be Harry Lime himself! Martins chases him but his friend escapes. When Martins gets the British involved, it's revealed that the body in the coffin is the inside man from the hospital and that Lime has been crossing from zone to zone through Vienna's sewers and hiding out in the neutral areas between zones. Clearly it was Lime himself who was the third man. Later, during a confrontation between Martins and Lime, our hero realizes that his friend is a cold hearted villain who sees people only for their potential monetary value. Although Harry doesn't want to help the international police forces capture Lime, a trip to the hospital to see the results of his friend's crimes starts to tug at his conscience.

End of spoilers.

I tend to watch lower budget b-movies, so most of the films I've seen from around this era don't have the quality of acting and writing found in The Third Man. The editing and pacing are excellent and hold the attention of the viewer even during the slower sequences. For me, the most memorable moment is the movie's famous "Ferris wheel scene"; this consists entirely of a conversation between two characters, but it's so well written and filled with such menace and suspense that it's definitely the high point of the movie (no pun intended).

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