The Third Man

AFI Rank: #57
Year Released: 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Actors: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten

The Third Man is a true classic, and worthy of its vote as #57 in the AFI top 100. Even over sixty years later, the story draws you in and keeps you fascinated.

The location is post-war Vienna, dark, seedy, watched over by four different countries who do not get along entirely well. There are bombed-out ruins in all directions. The black market thrives and the locals are nervous about the occupiers. Into this complicated mix of cultures and emotions comes Holly, an American writer of cowboy stories. He's upset when he finds his friend Harry has just died, and outraged when the police and others indicate that Harry was a racketeer. He is convinced that there's a conspiracy to blacken his friend's name, and he's going to get to the bottom of it.

He's soon chasing down the doctor who Harry went to, other friends of Harry's, as well as Anna, Harry's girlfriend. Holly begins to fall for Anna, and assembling together the threads of a story. But things are even more complicated than they appear.

The characters are great, and the cinematography is brilliant. The shadows hide and reveal characters, Motives slide and slip. The movie gets better with subsequent watchings, as you sense the hidden motives and see the subtle touches, the hiding of the photo, the playing with the dice. The children pushing the carousel because they can't afford tickets.

A classic scene involves characters high in a ferris wheel, talking about the people below as "dots" - about whether anyone really cares about those tiny dots. Does anyone really care whether they live or die? It's a powerful view of the world, and an insight into the way the characters view the world. I love the discussion about how the quiet Swiss culture produced cuckoo clocks, while the violence-laden Italian culture of the Renaissance created fantastic artwork.

While several AFI top 100 movies are good to watch just once for historical purposes, this one is well worth owning and rewatching several times.

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