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The classic noir that inspired Detective Pikachu’s grittier side

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A reminder why The Third Man is a pillar of the genre

Source image: Warner Bros. Pictures, The Criterion Collection | Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

Recent years have trained the public to be wary of directors likening their big-ticket tentpole projects to cinema classics. The Russo brothers loved to trot out “it’s just like a ’70s paranoid thriller!” during the Captain America: The Winter Soldier press tour, and James Mangold likening his Logan to the films of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu was a historic display of cojones.

Detective Pikachu co-writer Dan Hernandez can put his money where his mouth is, however. He hardwired the film noir roots of the Pokémon adventure right into his script, leaving explicit instructions for homage. When our boy Tim (Justice Smith) first encounters the Pikachu that he’ll soon make his partner, the critter scuttles about in the shadows until Tim flicks on a desk lamp. The camera assumes Tim’s vantage point as he creeps around some office furniture to reveal the little electric mouse.

It’s all there in the screenplay’s scene direction:

À la THE THIRD MAN, we reveal Detective Pikachu stepping out from shadow.

Hernandez knew that he couldn’t go wrong sampling from the best, and Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man has a serious claim to the title of all-time greatest in the annals of the noir genre.

orson welles in the third man on blu ray
Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949)
The Criterion Collection

“When we were trying to think of a dramatic way to reveal this kind of classically noir character, I went back to the basics of my favorite noir movie,” he tells Polygon. “Even though it’s not quite a detective story, The Third Man is a de facto detective story. And there’s this very, very famous shot where Orson Welles’ face is lit up by a window opening, and the light’s hitting his face after you think he’s dead the entire movie. Then he just smiles. It’s just this magical, perfect shot.”

Welles’ character of Harry Lime, though absent through the first act and most of the second, holds the key to unlocking The Third Man’s genius. The script follows American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as he searches postwar Vienna, still under Allied occupation, for his old pal Harry, rumored dead; hence, Hernandez’s comment about a gumshoe story without the gumshoe. The chaos of war has turned the city into a hotbed of lawlessness, with racketeering and black market commerce flourishing between the divided American, British, French, and Soviet sectors. As Holly’s amateur investigation leads him deeper into the den of sin, he grows more and more jaded about humanity’s baser nature. He pumps the porter at Harry’s old pad for intel, dresses the reluctant informant down for not being more cooperative, and then learns a cold lesson when the porter’s fears of getting murdered are promptly proven well-founded.

Holly’s journey through moral turpitude leads him to finally reunite with Harry, not quite as dead as he’d like everyone to believe. His conscience, on the other hand, is no longer alive and kicking. In what’s reverently known around cinephile circles as “the cuckoo-clock monologue,” Harry goes on a pitch-black rant that clarifies just how warped his sense of right and wrong has grown. From high atop the Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel, he says the people of Earth look like nothing more than little dots, and that their tiny movements make no difference in the greater contours of existence.

Then, Welles delivers the most famed quote of all: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

A world-weary cynicism joins the many offshoots included under the noir umbrella, a sorrow at humanity’s capacity for evil that made plenty of sense as the species reeled from two world wars. The Third Man crystallizes this concept more artfully and ruthlessly than any contemporary, dragging us along with Holly on a sightseeing tour through mankind’s corroded soul. Even though the film ends with the novelist triumphing over the corrupted Harry, Reed slips in one last note of bitter anti-resolution. Holly develops a bit of a flirtation with Harry’s actress girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) over the course of the film, and when he encounters her at Harry’s funeral, she can’t bear to look at him. By this point, everyone’s carrying too much pain.

Detective Pikachu doesn’t match the depths of Reed’s pessimistic streak. It’s a family picture, and in fact, the final scenes angle towards a rosy idealism about the vitality of family and our ability to live harmoniously with one another. But traces of Reed’s film can be found all over the film for those looking out, beyond the shot sequencing of Pikachu’s introduction. The primary antagonist, a power-mad industrialist (Bill Nighy) with a dream of achieving immortality by forcing himself into the consciousness of a Pokémon, would have plenty to chat about with Harry.

Of course the film ends with goodness and happiness triumphing, but between its flourishes of moody chiaroscuro lighting and big-sinister-conspiracy plot, the film’s not unacquainted with the building blocks of its darker forebears. The nasty cynical element remains present, it’s just eventually overcome. The Third Man may have inspired more devout descendants, but analyze Detective Pikachu’s DNA, and the genetic link is there. As the noir par excellence, a little bit of Reed’s film lives on every time a hard-boiled private eye happens upon a clue.

The Third Man is streaming now on Netflix and The Criterion Channel