The Third Man stars Orson Welles. It is a very well-made flick, but in a way that constantly brings attention to the craft of the filmmakers, rather than allowing the viewer to lose themselves in the flick.
Welles is the “main character” – the Third Man from the title, but does not appear until more than halfway into the film. Welles later said it was the perfect role to play, despite the lack of screen time: even though he’s not ON camera, the other characters spend all their time talking about him. So when he finally does show up, with all the waiting and expecting, all Welles has to do is twitch an eyebrow and grin condescendingly and we are bowled over.
I stop short of saying it is a masterpiece, though it really is well-made, and absolutely arresting to watch. It is about friendship and betrayal, and the futility of Yankee optimism and bellicosity in healing a crushed, cynical and jaded postwar
The story revolves around the postwar black market and how some smugglers have hurt hundreds of little children. The protagonist is taken to a hospital where the miserable and luckless little ones are convalescing, and is so horrified that he agrees to betray a trust – but we don’t get to see the kids! We just see him looking AT the kids. Showing wee types all dewy-eyed and pathetic is perhaps an exploitation we are glad to be spared, but it’s like the filmmakers don’t want us to be unfairly influenced to hate the villain, or to see the world a little bit differently. It does little to make me think about the nature of friendship, or betrayal, or honor, virtue, or anything else. The people in it are very real but they don’t matter.
Anyway, I keep thinking I’ll be telling people it’s a masterpiece, but then I don’t. The Cuckoo-Clock-Speech is probably worth the price of admission alone. But it’s an empty pleasure.
I want to recommend it but worry that I am pushing a hollow experience onto you, dear reader. It’s an easy movie to respect, but it affirms nothing, inspires no one, and is in no way edifying or consciousness-enhancing. Is that enough? Maybe I am unfair to accuse a film of not having the ambitions I would have wanted it to.