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The Third Man­ – A Review

I hurried over to Film Forum the other day (first day of the run) to see the 4K restoration of The Third Man, the great 1949 film directed by Carol Reed.

Why rush to see a 65-year-old movie, especially one I’ve seen at least ten times already? What makes the long trek in from Brooklyn worth the time and effort?

The restoration, and the chance to see it on the big screen, provided the justification. Now, sometimes restorations seem to serve as an excuse for film geeks to congregate and listen to talks given by people vaguely connected to the movie, such as the grandnephew of the director. Or to sell an expensive new DVD. Excuse me, I mean Blu-Ray, throw out your DVD, you need the new Blu-Ray. But this restoration turned out to be more than just run of the mill.

The Third Man

The restoration brings everything into a sharper focus; the shadows are darker, the contrast between light and dark is more vivid. The Vienna of The Third Man is closed in, damp, strewn with rubble, stuck in its history as a former imperial capital, its grandeur diminished, all shadows and angles, filled with sad people eking out meager livings, and haunted by the Anschluss and the nasty business after that. Reed shot many scenes at skewed angles, and this technique heightens the unease. The restoration somehow makes the skewed angles more skewed. The expressionist cinematography, by Robert Krasker (Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography, 1950), reminds us of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, but Krasker takes us a step further here.

Anton Karas wrote the score and played the music. His zither playing (Reed discovered him in a cafe shortly after arriving in Vienna), conjures up the atmosphere of depressive and treacherous Vienna in a way that eludes explanation. I never really wanted to hear zither playing before the first time I saw this movie, and I can’t say the desire has cropped up much since that time. Except when watching The Third Man. The moment we see the instrument’s strings, moving to the theme, this powerful film begins to exert its grip. Again, the restoration makes its quality felt, as the clarity and precision of the sounds are beautiful, not just the music but the dialogue and echoing footsteps as well.

The protagonist is an American writer of pulp Westerns (The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, etc.) with a drinking problem, who falls in love too easily, and who goes by the improbable name of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). Martins has come to Vienna to write for a medical charity founded by his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who seems to have met an unfortunate end, and who, we soon learn, appears to have been up to no good at all. At Lime’s funeral, we are introduced to all but one of the main players: Anna (Alida Valli), Lime’s grieving girlfriend; Major Calloway, a British military police investigator (Trevor Howard) and his subordinate, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee); as well as the strange and unsettling group of mitteleuropäische and Balkan schemers around Lime: “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), Mr. Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), and Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto).

In spite of Major Calloway’s suggestion to Martins that he “leave death to the professionals,” Martins refuses to believe that his old friend is a scoundrel, and commences an inept but dangerous investigation. As Martins blunders along, trying to fix a world that refuses to be fixed, Lime’s friends in turn each play Martins like a violin. Soon Martins finds himself under threat, and Major Calloway decides to open his eyes. “This isn’t Santa Fe. I’m not a sheriff, and you aren’t a cowboy.” And Lime’s racket, a perverse reversal of healing, is ghastly.

Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, based on a novella he wrote first, originally not intended for publication. In it, Martins and Lime were English, and Popescu was an American named Cooler. The change in nationalities in the film reflects Greene’s views on Americans. Greene, a MI6 agent as well as a novelist, viewed the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the American one with dismay, and Americans as either bumbling or calculating. A convert to Catholicism, Greene viewed our world’s state as God’s will, and any attempt to interfere as futile and likely to be destructive. The correct way to live is to uphold one’s duty, no matter how unpleasant. Like Major Calloway.

In Martins we get Greene’s idea of an American intellectual, a writer of dime novels with titles such as Death at Double X Ranch. Well meaning, but clueless, Martins’ investigation gets a witness murdered. He is the classic naive American, who wants to be loved and thinks everyone in the world is an American inside, just dying to get out. Greene would develop this theme further in The Quiet American (1956), long before the world would hear of My Lai. Lime is Martins’ flipside: the venal and amoral American, who exploits the world’s miseries and misfortunes for profit.

The only important player not introduced at the start is Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Welles’ entrance comes over halfway through the movie, when light from a window chances upon his face, and from that point on, he owns the film. Welles’ face goes from blank indifference, to mild surprise at his own lack of discretion, to an ineffable expression that is somewhat a smirk, somewhat a sympathetic smile, but not quite either.

This Orson Welles is not the slim young man from the Mercury Theatre; he’s put on a few extra pounds since his War of the World radio broadcast days, but he’s not yet the bloated, self-hating shell of A Touch of Evil. You’re not likely to see a more charming and articulate sociopath. Welles himself wrote the best lines of what is a very smart screenplay, the famous “Cuckoo Clock” speech:

“You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for thirty 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.”

Brilliant and unforgettable, one of the all-time classic snippets of cinematic dialogue. Who cares that it’s not even true? The Swiss are forever pointing out that they didn’t even invent the cuckoo clock. No one cares.

It’s worth remembering that Welles was slumming to make this movie, and even went awol during the filming, and had to be tracked down. After The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles was persona non grata in Hollywood, at least as a director of anything he might want to direct. This was a “pay the bills” assignment. A great mind, relegated to the sidelines. And you can’t take your eyes off him.

The film is set just as the Cold War was getting underway, and our project to save the world, still continuing, was just getting started. So much of what would go so wrong was foreshadowed by this simple noir set in a Central European capital. Diluted penicillin is nothing compared to Agent Orange, and what are Lime and his racketeers next to Halliburton? If you think you see a precursor of our adventure in Iraq, to rid the world of an evil dictator, bring democracy to the Middle East, and make a lot of money doing it, you’re right.

The Third Man (1949) – Directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene, with Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles as Harry Lime. Cinematography by Robert Krasker. Music by Anton Karas. A Rialto Pictures Release. Restored in 4K by Deluxe Restoration, on behalf of Studiocanal, from a fine grain master positive struck from the original negative,

Showtimes: Playing at Film Forum in NYC through Thursday, July 9. Opening at the Nuart, Los Angeles, Friday, July 3, through Thursday, July 9. For other showings around the country, through the end of August:

The Third Man, review by Franklin Mount

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