Continuing my trek through films seen long ago and little remembered accompanied by some jotted-down thoughts...

The Divorcee

#19. The Divorcee (1930, Leonard)
First Seen in: 2008
Reintroduction #5 Post:

the third man

#20. The Third Man (1949, Reed)
First Seen in: 2003

It had been ten years since I’d seen Reed’s masterpiece and it held up indubitably. Has there ever been a film whose legend has hinged more on its score? Not to discredit its serendipitous fusion of other components. Carol Reed and Robert Krasker’s canted-angled conversations and shots of various European inhabitants and expressionist on-location filming of war-torn Vienna make for a film filled with cobbled rubble and endless labyrinthine shadowing. Graham Greene’s script denigrates Holly Martins without quite making a joke of him. His indecision, naivete, consistent buffoonery, low-brow shoot-em-ups and unrequited crush all make him satisfyingly human. He even gets bitten by a parrot! And that last shot is what I remembered more than anything from having seen it ten years ago.

The Third Man is rich in character, dialogue and especially in the universe it creates. It reminds me a little of Casablanca in that way, where it shows us a WWII melting pot existence. The Third Man inserts you into a unique sense of place where shifty characters commingle with shifty characters, where repartee is currency and where everyone knows more than you do.

And it really all comes together because Reed was lucky enough to both stumble upon Anton Karas and his zither, and make the genius decision to use his music as the soundtrack. Not just part of. But the entire soundtrack. And during the finale, Reed uses no music, opting for echoes and trudging footsteps. It’s such a singular choice in a time where all films had traditional orchestral scores. Here, the zither becomes the stand-out identifier of the film. It’s what people take away with them. It’s a massive chance, making your score the opposite of what it otherwise would have been but it pays off huge. This score stays with you. You hear it when you’ve finished, when you’re going about your day. It’s carefree and atmospheric. It’s perfect.

And of course I have to touch on Orson Welles who dominates the entire film even though he has about ten minutes of screen time. There’s something about him here that makes him the most magnetic he’s ever been. It’s not just the ghostly mysteriousness that surrounds him. It’s not just the iconic way Reed introduces him. And it’s not just the way Welles memorably inserts his overlapping urgent dialogue pacing in his big scene. It’s all of those things and a little something more.

Unsurprisingly this is the type of film I already want to go back to, to read as much as I can about it and to just soak in it continuously. When you get right down to it, I think it’s this overly simplistic reason why the film has remained a bona fide classic.


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