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Great Media: The Third Man

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A more whimsical feature we will have here from time to time is called The Great Media.  It is where we will profile either a movie, book, television show, or album that is truly outstanding.  Today's selection is the best film noir ever made, The Third Man.


Orson Welles was still a big star in 1949, and he was selected to play Harry Lyme, one of the most monstrously evil characters ever portrayed on screen.  He is often incorrectly identified as the film's producer, writer, or director, but he was not.  It was directed by Carol Reed from a story by Graham Greene, one of the Great American Novelists.

Orson Welles is the headliner of the show, but Joseph Cotton gets more screen time as Lyme's honorable (former) friend Holly Martins.  The story starts with Martin traveling to post-WWII Vienna, currently broken into political districts controlled by Russia, the United States, and Britain.  Martins has heard that Lyme has been murdered and sets out to unravel the mystery of who killed him, why, and who was the "third man" reportedly there at the scene of his death along with him and the killer.  It goes from there.  Welles does not even make an appearance except in still photographs until about 1/3 of the way through the movie.  His introduction is one of the great moments in cinema.

I don't want to give away much of the plot, and I may be giving away too much by saying that Lyme is not dead when the story starts, but honestly you're expected to guess that by the fact that Orson Welles is the lead actor and the pictures of Lyme that appear early in the movie are clearly pictures of Welles.  Clearly Lyme must be alive, or Welles can only appear in flashbacks.

When Lyme finally arrives, we come to understand the depths of his depravity.  Even his name suggests a disease or a pestilence that must be eradicated.  When he reveals his immoral money-making scheme, its details are shocking even to modern audiences.  He justifies himself in a famous speech by saying that his brand of evil is necessary to advance civilization.  At the end of his speech, you almost believe him.  

The movie was actually shot in Vienna, during the period depicted in the movie.  It looks and feels like a city in post-war tumult.  The Marshall Plan was in its early stages of rebuilding and pacifying Europe, and it was not yet certain that it would work.  It is the perfect environment for a dark movie, and this is.

There are at least four classic moments or scenes in this movie, two of which have already been mentioned: Lyme's initial appearance where it is revealed he is not dead, and Lyme's speech defending and justifying his reprehensible actions.  There is also a famous chase scene involving a Ferris Wheel, and another chase through the sewers of Vienna that closes out the movie.

All serious movie-watchers need to see The Third Man.  Fortunately, there is a Criterion Collection 2-disk DVD available .