Two Film Noir Favorites: The Third Man and Sweet Smell of Success

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Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

This past fall I again watched two of my fave film noir movies, The Third Man and Sweet Smell of Success. Film noir was a style of Hollywood film, popular in the 40’s and 50’s that sought to expose and exploit the dark side of life. Themes were ambiguous, often not pretty, and occasionally considered scandalous.

They were primarily black and white and gritty. Many have been resurrected less successfully than intended (eg. Cape Fear), though some have emulated the genre with superb flare (eg. L.A. Confidential).

The Third Man

Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard, based on the novel by Graham Greene. The zither soundtrack is playful and somber simultaneously. If you’ve seen the film before, the opening strumming will give you a lift as you know you’re entering a story that has previously moved you.

I have never tired of the interplay of these characters with competing motives.

Unrelenting fascination is what I have every time I watch this movie. It never seems old. It’s in my mind, haunting me, with its unearthly music and its dark, oblique photography. Add that great Orson Welles’ speech, and also the best entrance in movie history to go along with the best exit in movie history. It couldn’t be better. (OK, Orson Welles’ “exit” in Touch of Evil was PDG.)

If you’ve seen it, the film is worth re-visiting, and worth seeing if you haven’t. The music track is Anton Karras on the zither. It greets you at the open and carries you through. As I heard the opening notes it awakened anticipation and memories simultaneously.

Here’s from a reviewer at
Of all the movies during the studio era (pre-1960), there are three movies with cinematography that always stick out in my mind: Gregg Toland’s work in Citizen Kane, Russel Mety’s work in Touch of Evil, and Robert Krasker’s work in The Third Man (all starring Orson Welles, incidentally). I just recently saw a restored 35mm version of The Third Man. The crisp black and white visuals of a bombed out Vienna are so breath-taking. Shadows are everywhere. The unique way Krasker tilts the camera in some shots adding to the disorientation of the plot. And who can forget the first close-up of Welles with the light from an apartment room above splashing onto his face; one of the great entrances in movie history (Lime gives his old friend a smile that only Welles could give.)

Here is my 2011 review of The Third Man.

Sweet Smell of Success

The thick jazz intro by Elmer Bernstein is a perfect setup for this big film about power and influence. Who’s got it? J.J. Hunsecker. Who wants it? Sidney Falco.

Sidney’s a publicity man from the slimeball school. He purportedly has the power to get PR for his clients, though the real power lies in J.J.Hunsecker’s palm. And Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) takes pleasure in crushing people. “Hunsecker is the golden ladder to where I want to get,” says Falco (Tony Curtis). Oh the games people play. There are four main characters in the story. Falco, Hunsecker, Hunsecker’s sister Susie, and a jazz guitarist whose stage name is Steve Dallas.

In scene one Sidney Falco finds that a story he promised a client will not appear in tomorrow’s Hunsecker column. Falco knows why. Susie is in love with the jazz guitarist and Hunsecker is expecting Falco to break it up. So within the first ten minutes we see what everybody wants. The music and the gritty black-and-white texture of the film are a tip-off. The screenwriting is A-plus, line after zinger line. Acting is spot on, too. The emotional tension tightens with each turn of the screw.

Here’s my 2016 review of this powerful story.

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If you like Film Noir and you’re looking for films to add to your queue, check out this list of 100 All Time Film Noir Favorites

Three of my favorites from that list besides the aforementioned: The Killing (Kubrick), Touch of Evil and Chinatown.

Though this blog post is about films, the two films cited above were also powerful books, which I also enjoyed immensely and have read more than once each.

Originally published at

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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