July 23rd, 2019

The Third Man (1949)

Now on Netflix

(4 stars)

Austria, 1947: what an interesting place to begin a movie.

There was no way to make post-war Vienna look like a happy place even if they wanted to. Bombed-out buildings littered every street. The joy of young love was nowhere to be found because the German-speaking world had been almost wiped clean of young men.

Vienna was awkwardly split into four districts, controlled by the UK, France, the US, and the Soviet Union. Money and material goods were in short supply, so the black market had become the city’s biggest industry.

“The Third Man” takes place in a broken world where it feels like nothing good can happen. Then the film surprises you by being even darker than you were expecting.

Into this gloom steps American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins. His old buddy Harry Lime has offered him a job so here he is in Vienna to start a new life.

Unfortunately, Martins learns that Harry Lime just got run down by a car and killed.  

Time to go home for poor Martins, right? Nope. Driven by idealism and naivete, the American becomes a detective – interviewing everyone Harry Lime knew to find out what happened.

Along the way, Martins learns that Harry Lime was a shockingly villainous black marketeer. And that the Soviets are about to deport Harry’s beautiful Hungarian girlfriend.

Thank goodness Holly Martins is there to save the day…or to march around Vienna like a bull in a china shop – making everything worse – depending on your point of view.

That’s the timeless genius of “The Third Man”: you can view Holly Martins as a sincere good guy or you can view him as an arrogant busy body causing trouble on a continent where he doesn’t belong.

So we’ve got Russians bullying Eastern Europeans into submission. We’ve got Americans taking over local Western European markets. And we’ve got an American going around acting like the police even though he was never asked to do so. “This is not how I expected liberation to be,” mutters a put-upon old Austrian lady.

In other words, legendary author/screenwriter Graham Greene used “The Third Man” to tell the entire story of Cold War Europe even though it was still in its earliest stages. Who would have guessed that American troops would still be stationed in Germany seventy years later? Graham Greene.

“The Third Man” works as a film noir mystery. And it works as a subtle but brutal anti-American satire. It’s a four-star classic. That’s why they’re still showing it on Netflix.

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