The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed; Cinematographer: Robert Krasker)
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1950
Before we delve into the ins and outs of Robert Krasker’s milestone of noir cinematography, I’d like to take a minute to praise star Joseph Cotton, a man who shines in every single movie I’ve seen him in, from the underrated Gaslight to such iconic films as Citizen Kane. Cotton is the perfect balance to Orson Welles’ theatrical bravado, delivering a subtle offhandedness, and the two are paired again in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, in which conspiracy is king, the dead rise, and black and white morality is not an understood concept.
Now, I don’t love The Third Man (I’ll take the incomparable Shadow of a Doubt any day), though I understand how some do, and when cinephiles are talking shop about noir, The Third Man is is the alpha to Kiss Me Deadly’s omega. The movie just looks so seedy and dangerous, feels so filthy, the way a bar can sometimes feel right before it turns violent. Krasker’s shots are murky and askew, as if screaming to the viewer - these men, these streets, they cannot be trusted! Even nature is corrupt, the trees bordering this famous last scene in which Alida Valli’s Anna walks straight toward the lens, a one woman funeral procession, look like rotten, outstretched claws. The movie’s climax is set in a sewer, the underworld actualized, its characters submerged for one more fruitless chase below the earth, which, after all, is the film’s only victor.
The Academy had to make some tough decisions that year in the black and white category, selecting Krasker’s work over John F. Seitz’s nightmarish cinematography of Sunset Blvd, or the dangerous sublimity of Milton R. Krasner’s All About Eve compositions. Though by this period color film was becoming the popular mainstay, able to convey bright splashes of world vistas, elaborate costumes, and magnificent sets, there was still a need to show something else on screen. For the dark vision still lingering in the public conscious from World War II, only black and white was truth, for what had been seen, and what could be seen on the horizon, was anything but colorful.