Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Third Man

Carol Reed’s masterpiece, “The Third Man”, is universally regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. It will be presented tonight by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) as one of its film essentials. Personally, I regard it as a great work of art that can be viewed over and over again. The 1949 film brought together a great writer, a great director, a great cast, a great setting, great and innovative black and white cinematography, and a wonderful music score.

Graham Greene was one of the best novelists of the twentieth century but also one of the best film writers. In “The Third Man” he wrote a great story with incredible dialogue. It’s often said that films of novels don’t live up to the book, but in this case Greene and director Carol Reed turned an ordinary crime drama into a film that transcends the script.

Carol Reed used black and white images and jarring film angles to bring home the plight of war-ravaged Vienna and its many refugees who lived in four different zones occupied by American, British, French, and Russian soldiers.

Orson Welles
The cast was superb. Joseph Cotton gave the performance of his career as Holly Martins, a down and out American writer of cheap western novelettes who had come to Vienna as the behest of his boyhood friend, Harry Lime. Orson Welles gave a bravura performance as Lime but doesn’t appear until midway in the film. When he does appear, it is the most striking appearance in cinema history. The leading lady was Alida Valli, a great Italian actress little known in America. She was a beautiful actress who played with rare depth and intelligence. I cannot imagine any Hollywood actress who could have played this role.

A great supporting cast backed up the stars. British actor Trevor Howard was never better as a British officer on the trail of Harry Lime. There was also a marvelous group of unnamed Austrian or German actors: the landlady, the house porter (“dere vas a third man”), Baron Kurtz, and Doctor Winkle, pronounced Vinkle. Equally supportive was the zither of Anton Karas that did so much to set the mood of each scene.

Speaking of scenes, a few stand out and can never be forgotten. In one scene Trevor Howard takes Joseph Cotton through a hospital ward where infant victims of Lime’s nefarious penicillin scheme lay dying. There is the chase scene through Vienna’s vast underground sewer system.

 The most famous scene must be the one takes place in a huge Ferris wheel. My wife and I took the ride on a visit to Vienna and it is nothing to be scared of but Reed’s direction fills the scene with tension and drama. At the end of the ride, Orson Welles speaks the film’s most famous lines. To paraphrase. “Listen old man, during the years of the Borgias, Italy was filled with violence, bloodshed, and cruelty but it produced the Renaissance. Switzerland has enjoyed a thousand years of peace and tranquility. What did it produce? The Cuckoo clock.”

Finally, the film ends with an unforgettable scene. The camera never moves and Alida Valli is just walking back from a cemetery. Nothing seems to be going on, but everything is going on. ###

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