Movie: The Third Man (1949)

After watching The Third Man—considered to be an immortal work that will remain in film history—a quiet laugh built up inside me, and the thought that remained was, “Ah, I watched the most overrated movie in film history.” Of course, I can imagine this movie being considered to be an absolute masterpiece from the time it was made until about 30 years later. However, I think the reason this movie was considered to be a “masterpiece” is because the techniques and methods used—which were novel for the time this movie came out—surprised the audience, resulting in surprisingly high praises. This movie certainly used novel techniques—such as different filming angles, and extreme contrast between light and dark—that weren’t used at all in the 1940s. But these techniques were exhaustively imitated by younger moviemakers, and these “novel techniques” gradually became “classic,” “mainstream,” and eventually “old-fashioned”; therefore it is no longer interesting to watch a movie like this today. The techniques may have been interesting at that time, but the story is not interesting, and the underlying “concept” of the movie is superficial. I wish to write a little about this point.

The setting is after World War II, when Austria’s capital Vienna was split into four parts, ruled by four different countries—the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. American pulp writer Holly Martins, upon being offered a job from his childhood friend Harry Lime, arrives in occupied Vienna. When Martins visits Lime’s residence, he is informed by the doorman that Lime died in a car accident. Martins attends Lime’s funeral service, where he meets Major Calloway of the British army; Martins learns from the Major that Lime traded goods through the black market and was being watched by the police. Also, Martins is attracted to the beautiful actress Anna Schmidt, who was Lime’s lover and at the funeral.

Suspicious-looking men—such as a baron who claims to have been Lime’s friend, a mysterious Romanian businessman, and a shady doctor—appear in front of Martins, who is trying to find out the truth about Lime’s death. Although there should have only been the baron and the Romanian man at the scene of the accident, Martins is told by the doorman there was actually—in addition to Lime’s two friends— an unknown “third man” at the scene of the accident. However, the doorman, who is going to give a critical testimony, is killed, and Martins is suspected as the killer.

In order to say why this movie is old, I will take figure skating as an example. Swedish Ulrich Salchow, who is considered to be a legendary skater in skating history, did the single rotation Salchow jump for the first time in history in 1909. American Theresa Weld was the first female skater to succeed with the single Salchow jump in 1920. Today, since the Salchow jump is a jump that naturally utilizes the body’s momentum, its degree of difficulty is considered to be low for a jump. In fact, American Timothy Goebel was the first male skater to succeed with the quadruple Salchow jump in 1998, while Japanese Miki Ando was the first female skater to succeed with the quadruple Salchow jump in 2002. Today, skaters don’t earn points for doing a single Salchow jump at an international competition. However, this does not diminish Ulrich Salchow’s greatness. The jump that Ulrich Salchow did in 1909 was miraculous in those days, and people who wanted to catch up to and surpass him then polished and improved his jump; thus, figure skating was able to develop.

We could say the same thing about The Third Man. Many moviemakers were clearly inspired by the new filming techniques. However, all concrete things can be imitated by other people. Moviemakers constantly study masterpieces made by their seniors, and they are always on the lookout for anything that they can incorporate. While these images were novel at that time, they have become stale from constantly being copied. So happens with movies. The important thing is to have an abstract “concept”—which cannot be copied perfectly even if you try to copy it—behind the images that can withstand the change in times. The Third Man unfortunately does not have an enduring concept.

The Third Man is supposedly a mystery, but it is obvious who the “third man” is from the beginning. Moreover, after finishing this movie, there are too many plot holes that cannot be explained. Why did Lime summon Martins—a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years—from America? Why didn’t Major Calloway, who had the authority to investigate, confirm whether the dead body in the coffin was really Lime? Because Anna appears to believe her lover just died—even though she should have looked at his dead body—was she involved in the scheme? Who killed the man in the coffin? Who killed the doorman? The scene where Martins gives a lecture seems to be completely pointless—what possible significance does it carry? We patiently follow this and that development, but at the end, feel forsaken when left with a pile of unexplained things.

This movie uses the city of Vienna as a very attractive backdrop. I think being divided into four parts and controlled by foreign powers is a difficult situation, but because this movie is depicted from the viewpoint of the victorious nation Great Britain, it completely ignores the gloom and frustration of the Viennese citizens; it only depicts taking precautions against the intrusive Soviet Union headquarters. Also, Anna Schmidt, who is supposed to be extremely beautiful, did not impress me with her looks. As mentioned earlier, it remains a mystery whether or not she participated in Lime’s crimes. Because nothing is depicted about her character, I don’t know what kind of person she is.

Originally, it seems that the set up was that Martins and Lime are both Brits, and that in the last scene, similarly British Major Calloway watches as Martins and Anna walk away down a boulevard together, lightly arm-in-arm. However, in the process of production, Martins and Lime were changed to American, and Martins was changed into a slightly clueless American who can’t read the situation, and is rejected by Anna at the end of the movie. This ending scene is known to be “an amazing scene that will remain in movie history,” but since I can’t understand what kind of person Anna Schmidt is, I was not deeply moved. The movie depicts only Martins’s one-sided affections and not Anna having mutual feelings. Also, her switching to a new man just after her own man died would have come off as shameless; plus, if she did have a hand in the crime, it would be unsavory for her to clutch a new man’s hand with her bloodstained one. Therefore, the last scene of the two not getting together is a natural conclusion. This scene does not seem like one particularly worth mentioning. Is it really so painful that these two don’t end up together?

The theme song played with the zither—an Austrian musical instrument—was a huge hit, and it came to be considered, “a wonderful theme song that will remain in movie history,” but this song is a very cheery and optimistic song. Given the historical context of the suffering and gloomy society that is occupied by foreign countries, and since, in addition to the four people who are killed in this movie, countless babies died due to Lime’s crimes, you would think this movie would be a dark movie; but in fact, this movie, which is depicted from the viewpoint of an occupying nation, is a cool, light romance between a cool man and beautiful woman. The lightness of the theme song matches the lightness of the movie. The most important thing to the movie is how cool Martins and Lime look. In short, this is a not very convincing love story between two dandies and a beautiful woman.

To say it briefly, this movie made me tell myself, “This movie has historical value as being an important work that greatly influenced the next generation of moviemakers. But I would not join those who lightly called this an immortal masterpiece.”

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