The Third Man is one of my very favorite movies of all time, and the first one I would show people who think all those old black-and-white films are too slow. Within just a handful of minutes, we’ve gotten a crash course in the post-war politics of 1940s Vienna, met our main character on his way there, found out his friend he was going to meet was hit by a car just a few hours ago, and are, suitcase still in hand, looking down at his grave while this rollicking zither score plays. Who says old movies can’t MOVE.
You really do know right from the start that this one is different. The voiceover for the opening history lesson is impeccably blithe, feeling exceedingly British in that, but at the same time speaks to this very European sort of jaded ennui. “Wonderful,” the narrator chuckles over the hapless four-part assemblage of the Allied police force, “what hope they had. All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” This movie already has you laughing and we’re still in preamble. ‘Surprise!‘ it says. And it is a bit; according to the charters of this sort of thing, The Third Man is one of the very best of film noir, where “the streets were dark with something more than night.” But it sometimes happens, and oh I love it, that the preeminent versions of genre films are also deeply funny, simultaneously commenting on the genre as they perfect it.
Alright, so where are we — ah yes post-war Vienna, as mentioned. One of the best sets for a film that ever was. All partially bombed out buildings and Dutch angles and the street lights apparently at knee height and tilted up toward the nearest poetic escarpment of rubble and dilapidated grandeur. There is an extended sequence in a echoing, beautiful, stone-built sewer system, and for the first time since Victor Hugo you wish you could stay down there twice as long.
Into this chiaroscuro playground are tumbled an affable rube of an American pulp novelist turned situational detective; a kind, trimly professional British major with that wonderful clipped yet drawled English accent that died with Trevor Howard; a sad, morbid, beautifully disaffected comedy actress barely making a living hawking the tea and whiskey the foreign officers toss her in lieu of flowers; a German baron who looks like the Grinch and carries a tiny puppy tucked in his coat sleeves; and a slew of other progressively shadier characters from the thriving racketeering trade that has overrun the divided city.
And, of course, Orson Welles. Orson Welles, the original Philip Seymour Hoffman. With the best intro in cinema history and a zippy, cynical monologue on violence & culture as apocryphally improvised and deservedly acclaimed as Rutger Hauer’s C-beam speech in Blade Runner.
The second time I watched The Third Man, it was part of a Welles double feature at Film Forum in New York City with three friends of mine. I was the only one who had seen it before, and was so gratified when they fell in love with it as much as I had, laughingly singing the zither melodies at one another all the way back uptown. This is one of those classics that really, really earns it. Come for the gorgeous cinematography, come for the dry modern hilarity, come for the twisty film noir plotting — just come.