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Freshly Restored, The Noir Of 'The Third Man' Still Dazzles

Courtesy of Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal
Orson Welles in Carol Reed's 'The Third Man.'

Not many films are as purely enjoyable as the 1949 crime drama The Third Man.

Newly restored, it's tense, lively and complex to look at. It has four great actors in Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles and it has some of the best lines ever written for the movies. On top of those things, if you've never seen the film before, the score composed by Austrian musician Anton Karras and played on a zither will lodge in your brain forever.

The Third Man tells a delicious story of corruption and naiveté, a little like the musical Cabaret. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in Vienna just after the end of World War II. An American writer of lightweight western novels, he's come there because his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) promised him a job. But when Holly gets off the train, he learns that Harry has just been killed in an accident. Holly makes it to the funeral, and then he finds only confusion.

Director Carol Reed shot the film on location in Vienna. He wades in to the postwar chaos – buildings collapsed from bombings, mountains of bricks – and a city divided into four unwieldy parts by the occupation forces of France, Britain, America and the Soviet Union.

The people of Vienna – at least the characters in the film – are desperate and needy. Honesty and integrity have vanished. Holly Martins believes rather stupidly in what he fantasizes was the code of the American West. He's a simple-minded moralist who can't get it into his head that his old buddy Harry was an odious black marketer who trafficked in diluted penicillin.

Credit Courtesy of Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal

The Third Man is a riot of exuberant film technique. Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker create magnificent black and white shadowy chases through the sewers beneath the city – bewildering tunnels with complicated architectural archways and the raw sewage rushing to what a British soldier cynically calls the "beautiful blue Danube." Reed cants the frame to make the instability palpable, so the action feels out of kilter. Poor Holly, entirely dizzied by the moral shakiness, looks like he's going to topple right out of the screen. Occasional chunks of dialogue come in German without subtitles to make English speakers feel out of the loop, just like Holly.

The movie reeks of deception. Characters trade looks that Holly consistently misses or misunderstands. He never makes the obvious and often sinister connections between people.

Harry Lime had a girlfriend, played by Alida Valli, a hauntingly gorgeous actress from what's now Croatia. Martins can't take his eyes off her, never realizes what it is she's thinking about, or why she resents his interference.

No one in the audience and no one in the movie, except for Holly, believes that Harry Lime is really dead. Lime's appearance into the film – Orson Welles knew how to juice up a great entrance – is one of the most startling and playful in the entire history of the movies. Amid all the crime, the conspiracies and international intrigues, the rumors of a vile career meddling with children's medicine and questions of morality, Harry is discovered by a cat.

Film-noir is mostly an American phenomenon of the postwar period, but it spread to Europe, and you can see it in The Third Man. Like American noir films, this movie is smothered in doubt, vulnerability and misdirection. The British writer Graham Greene, who wrote both the original story and the screenplay, nails the lack of wisdom that sits beneath Holly's American optimism.

Holly Martins just isn't up to either the sophistication or the hypocrisies of postwar Europe. He can't grasp what virulent Nazism and thorough defeat have done to the people of Vienna. A British military policeman (Trevor Howard) keeps telling Martins to go home, that this Vienna is not one of Holly's morally childish books. But Martins is lost – and the fabulous pursuit of the zither makes it obvious.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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