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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: The Third Man, 1949

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

The Third Man, 1949

Grand Prix du Festival International du Film – Carol Reed

There’s a moment near the end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man where a character is being chased and suddenly looks down a corridor at a blast of light. The shot is of his silhouette against this luminous background. Though this was my first viewing of The Third Man, I had seen this shot many times before.

This is a film that fully earns its status as a classic, and though I already knew the shot, seeing it within the context of the film is no less jaw-dropping. There are many shots like that in this film, and that’s what makes it one of the greats.

This is noir cinema at its finest. That is surely one of the reasons this film was awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. This was the precursor to the Palme d’Or, and was the highest prize awarded at the time. It beat out other films by David Lean, Michelangelo Antonioni, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Robert Wise, among others. It has since been voted the greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute.

For any great noir film, you need suspense. One must be pulled into the spiraling story and enthralled by the sheer grip of it. The Third Man does this marvelously. We first meet the film’s main character, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), as he is arriving in Vienna at the request of his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

“There is a melancholy to it that I didn’t notice at first, but by the end of the film the music and the images are inseparable.”

Lime told Martins that he had a job for him, but upon arrival, Martins finds that Lime has been killed in an accident near the apartment where he lived. He then begins learning more about Lime’s life in Vienna, including meeting his lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). Thus begins the unraveling of the film’s plot.

Stylistically, the film is famous for its use of the “Dutch angle.” The tilted camera technique appears repeatedly throughout the film, and it underscores the tension felt by Martins as he navigates a foreign city.

The film is also famous for its music (by Anton Karas), which at first seems slightly out of place. The zither tones seemed to be more appropriate for some faraway beach. But as the film continued, I began to see why Roger Ebert said of the film, “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man?” There is a melancholy to it that I didn’t notice at first, but by the end of the film the music and the images are inseparable.

Carol Reed’s astounding directorial vision washes over you as the story unfolds. As I said before, there are countless shots that instantly wow you. This is a perfect noir film, and the execution of all the technical elements is absolutely astounding.

“Just when you think you have the movie sized up, it jolts you again.”

Those technical elements are supported by an incredible cast across the board. Cotton provides the foundational lead performance as Martins. He is the audience surrogate, unraveling the story as we do. But then there is the Cheshire cat grin of Orson Welles, perfectly deployed in the supporting role as Lime.

Finally, the cast is filled out with other stellar supporting turns from Valli and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway and Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine. I was also impressed with Ernst Deutsch’s performance as Baron Kurtz. His curling smile is deployed almost as another cinematic device, luring us into the film’s hard-boiled story.

Finally,
just when you think you have the movie sized up, it jolts you again with a character monologue about the value of people. Here, another layer of the film’s story is unearthed, showing that this is much more than just a case to be solved. There are layers upon layers, both visually and narratively.

This is a film that you simply cannot forget once you’ve seen it. Each element is handled beautifully, and the story is captivating. Though it has long been lauded as a classic of worldwide cinema, here the hype is emphatically earned. As the incredible final shot washes over, there is absolutely no doubt that this is one of the finest films ever made.

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