I missed the new restoration of the greatest film noir of them all, The Third Man, when it played in my local theaters. But last week I visited family in New York City, and I caught it at the Film Forum.
What a great film! It easily belongs on my A+ list of films that I’ve loved dearly for decades, and continue to love. [URL changed 12/14/2015]
American film noir came out of the moral desolation of the Second World War–we had saved the world from fascism, but only by killing tens of millions of people. The Third Man, set and shot in Vienna, showed real desolation of the bombed-out city. The destruction of our humanity gets a powerful visual metaphor–always a benefit in cinema.
The Vienna of The Third Man suffers other indignities. The victorious powers have divided the city into sections, and it’s controlled by a not-always-collaborating group of Russians, French, American, and British soldiers.
The original screenplay by Graham Greene brings us deeper and deeper into this world of moral compromise. American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna, strapped for cash, but with a promise of a job by an old friend named Harry Lime. But Martins soon discovers that Lime has just died in a car accident. Then a British officer (Trevor Howard) tells him that Lime was a horrible criminal. Naturally, Martins sets out to clear his friend’s name.
I won’t go into the story beyond that. If you’ve seen it, you already know it. If you haven’t, just see it.
The film has a lot of fun with Martins’ apparently dreadful western novels, which have titles like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at Double-X Ranch (although none of the names are as garish as Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail). We meet one ardent fan of his work; needless-to-say a comic relief character.
Greene and director Carol Reed fill the picture with other entertaining and sometimes fascinating characters. Lime’s lover (Alida Valli) mourns him more than anyone, but her devotion will cost her considerably. And Orson Welles shows up at the end of the second act in a pivotal role. His charm, wit, and wonderful voice steal the picture.
Producers Alexander Korda and Davis O. Selznick provided enough money to realize Greene’s and Reed’s joint vision. Robert Krasker’s camerawork casts deep noir shadows, yet also shows the expanse of the ancient and ruined city. And Anton Karas’ music, performed entirely on a zither, is one of the most memorable and effective scores in cinema.
Indeed, the score was so important that the opening credits are super-imposed over an extreme close-up of the zither strings. The main theme was a hit record in 1950.
The final chase, in the ancient sewers below the city, is spectacular, exciting, and unlike any other chase. In the end, Martins gets a chance to be the western hero he writes about. Not that that does him any good. (And no, that’s not much of a spoiler.)
About the restoration: At this point, I’ve seen so many excellent 4K restorations that they rarely surprise me. This is just another one. But I noticed details I had never caught before, such as a small but very racist poster on a café wall .
I saw a beautiful 35mm print of The Third Man early last year. I think this digital version is better, but it’s impossible to accurately compare the image quality from two screenings more than 18 months apart. But I’m glad that we have both good 35mm prints and an excellent DCP.