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The Third Man

Screenplay by Graham Greene

This is Film Noir most terms of cinematography: chiaroscuro, long shadows, angular framing...and in terms of setting: opening and closing in a cemetery, underground locations, bombed out locations...and also in terms of plot: chasing after a dead man. But there is something not so noir about this film, and ironically, it’s a bit unsettling. Is it the score? Is it the flippant characters? Is it that irony itself? The thing is, while The Third Man is absolutely intriguing and throroughly enjoyable, there is little that is sufficiently gripping about it...let alone menacing.

Fast forward 42 years to Lars von Trier’s Zentropa. Zentropa is gripping; it is menacing, and in many ways similar to The Third Man. In both the protagonist is an American who’s just arrived to the bombed out rubblescapes of post WW II Europe. Both have a phantasmagoric quest; Holly Martins is trying to find his friend Harry Lime who’s supposed to be dead, but keeps appearing all over the place; Leopold Kessler is trying to find something a little more elusive...his purpose...indeed his life. Both men also find themselves involved with femme really wouldn’t be Noir without them.

Overall, I find Zentropa preferable. The storyline is much more opaque, but it is also much more layered and critical. I also was rather impressed with the cinematography, which has already been best summed up here:

...Lars von Trier's bag of cinematic tricks...include old-fashioned film techniques mixed with modern high tech. Some of the dialogue and interaction are arch and distant, resembling an old 40s B movie, while some is devastatingly personal. Occasionally, the film shifts from grainy, newsreel black-and-white to spurts of color – most frequent during the scenes of violence. There is even extended use of the old rear-projection format, complete with spinning, disorienting camera work.

This reviewer criticizes the film for having a story that is secondary to the cinematic tricks, but I absolutely disagree. Others are even less charitable and charge von Trier with so much cinematographic masturbation. Nonsense. The techniques used have several outstanding effects: one is that the layering of the narrative is given visual form; another is the impression of speaking through symbols, which I think universalizes what is being portrayed; and finally the viewer is rendered less passive and is actually drawn into the movement within the narrative even to the point that you can come to believe are on a train in Germany...

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