If you’ve never seen Carol Reed’s undisputed classic The Third Man (1949), I highly recommend that you do so, sooner than later. So much to love in the film, from the way it maintains an air of strong mystery even though we’re totally aware that it’s supposedly-dead central character, the enigmatic Harry Lime, is in fact alive, to that prolonged heartbreaker of a closing shot, our hero giving love one last chance only to have that bitch known as Cupid fire a slowly-traveling arrow.
While watching The Third Man again earlier, a random thought came into play. In so many ways, the “Harry Lime” character (played by the iconic Orson Welles) has tons in common with one of my all-time favorite movie conceptions, Apocalypse Now‘s “Col. Kurtz” (Marlon Brando). A second realization also hit me about The Third Man, that it could very well be the best piece of defense against those close-minded lames that swear off black-and-white films as “old,” “tired.” Yes, those people do exist, in bulk.
Let’s delve into both realizations, shall we?
First, that Lime/Kurtz-powered lightbulb-above-my-head. This isn’t exactly a profound notion, I’ll admit, but it’s one that I couldn’t shake throughout tonight’s viewing of The Third Man, so it warrants some typing time here. The thing that’s always made Col. Kurtz such a fascinating character in Apocalypse Now is how the script, written by John Milius and director Francis Ford Coppola, shapes the most intriguing, scary, uneasy man in the film without ever showing his actual face. All we’re given are pictures, and taped recordings, yet what we’ve learned about the guy is so dynamic and sinister that he’s already dominated the film’s outer shell by the time Brando shows up on screen in the final act. And then Brando completely owns the movie from that point forward, saying very little but making every heavy word count. So when Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finally carries out his kill-Kurtz-with-extreme-prejudice mission, the act is all the truly devastating despite our only knowing Kurtz for a short period of time.
Precisely the same sentiments are felt about Harry Lime throughout The Third Man. There’s the obvious connection between the two characters of “acting giants playing both” (Welles here, Brando there), but that’s too on-the-surface. It’s more about the way Harry Lime is established as this larger-than-life man through only secondhand accounts and other characters’ reactions toward his name’s mention. Lime, a Vienna, Austria, resident presumed dead as a result of a reported hit-and-run, turns out to be ten times shadier than his good friend from America, author “Holly Martins,” ever imagined. The means by which Martins gradually learns of his out-of-reach-at-the-moment pal mirror the steps taken by Capt. Willard to understand just how magnificently deranged Col. Kurtz has become while achieving his false-God status in the Cambodian jungles. To the tee, really.
In filmmaker Peter Bogdonavich’s introduction of The Third Man for the film’s Criterion Collection DVD release, he recalls a conversation that he had with Orson Welles about the film. In that chat, Welles described the role of “Harry Lime” as the ultimate “star role,” which he described as, basically, a role so powerful that it only needs to visibly live and breathe in the final scenes of the film because it’s been set up with such endless care prior. So that, by the time we finally meet the character, he/she has amassed a serious build-up unable to be wasted.
Welles’ idea of a “star role” pretty much nails the greatness of both “Harry Lime” and “Col. Kurtz.” Damn spot-on.
Aside from “Harry Lime,” though, The Third Man is such a great film to look at, an airtight piece of evidence for the praising of black-and-white film against color. Due to my young age and lifelong proclivity to colorful moving images, I personally enjoy color more, but that doesn’t mean I can’t genuinely appreciate black-and-white. Let’s be real—-Psycho and Night of the Living Dead are masterpieces, and I’ll be damned if their lack of pigmentation doesn’t enhance the need-extra-underwear-while-watching quality of both. Same goes for Carnival of Souls, a slept-on chiller that concludes with a sequence of frollicking ghouls set in an abandoned amusement park that scared the piss out of my Johnson as a kid (and still gives me heebies to this day).
Carol Reed’s use of shadows in The Third Man was tailor-crafted for black-and-white visuals. Particularly a shot that sets a running, contorting shadown against a brick wall—–it’s Lime fleeing from Martins after being spotted as alive for the first time, and Reed’s lighting tricks give the scene a real phantom-like feel. More dark color-pushing than shadow-heavy is a later shot that’s equally memorable, that of Lime slowly walking toward the camera from afar, dressed in all-black and approaching the left side of a carousel. In color, Lime’s suit could be brown, or dark gray, or navy blue, and any one of those tints would spoil the scene’s impact; in black-and-white, however, the pitch blackness of his outfit makes the mysterious, thought-to-be-a-corpse Lime seem like a spectre.
This climactic chase through the sewers of Vienna shows The Third Man‘s great employment of shadows: