Wednesday, August 5, 2015
Review: The Third Man
There are some who might liken seeing a black-and-white film from the 1940's to 'eating your cultural vegetables'. There's an idea that things that are capital-G Great and capital-I Important cannot also be fun to watch that has pervaded mainstream pop culture. This is, quite simply, wrong. Plenty of these films became capital-G Great over the years by being wildly entertaining, unpredictable, and beautiful to look at, and The Third Man, a post-World War II mystery-thriller set in crime-ridden Vienna, is high in the pantheon of endlessly watchable classics.
In The Third Man, Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, a writer come to post-war Vienna on the promise of a job from his old friend Harry Lime. But when he arrives, Cotten finds Lime dead, killed in a car accident. He attends the funeral, answers some questions from the local police, meets with some of Harry's friends... and, as he does, he begins to suspect that something is wrong. Did Harry die immediately, or did he have time for final words meant specifically for Holly? Was Harry a good man, or was he the criminal the police seem so convinced he was? Did two people carry witness his death... or was there a third man? As witnesses disappear and the lies about the death of Harry Lime begin to pile up, Holly finds that nothing in Vienna is quite what it seems.
Post-war Vienna is a fascinating location for the film. Divided into five 'zones' after World War II, the city was controlled in part by the United States, the British, the French, and the Soviet Union, with an 'international zone' between them all. Primary languages could vary by street, different papers might be required in each zone, and the law in one area might have limited reach into others. Crime, understandably, flourished in the underground, which let writer Graham Greene play around with the city's pristine appearance and seedy underbelly. The confusion of languages, the necessity of skirting the ever-shifting laws and boundaries - it's a mess of a city, the kind of place tailor-made for film noir.
But director Carol Reed manages to capture the beauty of the city as well, often shooting on location and making Vienna's abandoned back streets look stunning. The film could be bleak, as many late-40's noir was, but Reed keeps things fleet. There's a dry wit to The Third Man, which recognizes how outmatched its hero is but sticks with him anyway. Similarly, the famed score by Anton Karas, using only a zither, has a playful touch that often keeps things light but often contains deep wells of melancholy. The zither feels very much of a part of the time and place with which Reed plays, a purely Vienna touch that envelops the viewer in the world of the movie.
The Third Man is, to put it bluntly, one of the greatest films of all time, and - as with many of the great thrillers of Hitchcock and Wilder - the years have done nothing to blunt its impact. The twists hit hard, the score remains memorable, and the performances - particularly from Orson Welles - can't be beat. While you can catch The Third Man on DVD, blu-ray, and streaming on demand, the film was recently given a 4K restoration that will make it an experience to see on the big screen. You won't have more fun at the theater this year.
The Third Man was initially released in 1949, and has been given a 4K restoration and re-release by Rialto Pictures. It will be coming to the Midtown Art Theater on August 7th, 2015, to the Cleveland Cinematheque on August 14th, and check here for more dates. Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles.