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Classic ‘Third Man’ is best on the big screen

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Orson Welles creates one of cinema’s greatest bad guys in the 1949 noir classic “The Third Man.” (Courtesy Rialto Pictures)

“The Third Man” is back on the big screen, showing in a 4K digital restoration. The deservedly loved 1949 drama about good versus evil in postwar Vienna is masterful noir and terrific entertainment.

It boasts impressive talent. Director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene (original screenplay) teamed up for their third collaboration (after “The Fallen Idol” and “Odd Man Out”). Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles made their characters indelible. Robert Krasker won the Oscar for his expressionist cinematography. Anton Karas’ zither score remains unique and matchless.

American pulp-novel writer Holly Martins (Cotton) arrives in Allied-occupied Vienna to visit old friend Harry Lime. He is told Lime died earlier that day in a road accident. Did he?

Martins learns from military policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) that Lime was involved in deadly racketeering. After meeting Lime’s shady cohorts, Martins determines Lime was murdered. Investigating, he puts his own life in danger.

Midway through, Harry Lime (Welles) makes his entrance. Martins and Lime, in an eye-dazzling passage, ride the Ferris wheel and talk about friendship, loyalty, greed, betrayal, and other things Greene and noir. In a monologue as superior as the visual element, Lime reveals the scary degree of his wickedness. Martins must decide whether to help Calloway apprehend his childhood friend.

Intensifying the dilemma are Martins’ feelings for Lime’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli), who remains loyal to Lime.

A chase through the sewers dominates the final act.

While the movie is not necessarily profound, it is put together superbly. It’s a gorgeous, gripping, cynical, romantic, humanity-rich thriller.

Reed creates an immersing nocturnal atmosphere thick with intrigue. The camerawork is nuttily slanted, but the effect jibes with the moral landscape. Splendid lighting makes the revealing of Lime, looking like evil in the shadows, spellbinding.

At the same time, Reed doesn’t let the visuals overshadow the people. The characters are three-dimensional.

Without much screen time, Welles is a force of personality. He plays Lime as a charming scoundrel and as something more disturbingly evil. His cuckoo-clock speech, equating violence with achievement, alone establishes the character as one of the most memorable bad guys in cinema.

Martins is an ideal noir protagonist – decent, in over his head, and prone to stumbling, especially with women. His tendency to drink too much increases his confusion. Cotten makes Martins’ awakening to dark truths about Lime sympathetic and compelling.

Greene’s original ending was a happier one, but Reed and coproducer (with Alexander Korda) David O. Selznick believed it lacked necessary reality and grit. (Never today, of course, would a studio producer argue in favor of unhappy, credible closure.) The result is perfect.

The score, performed on the zither by the composer, was an international hit. Both crazed and mournful, it reflects the drama’s tone.

See this movie on a big screen.


REVIEW

The Third Man
Four stars

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard
Written by: Graham Greene
Directed by: Carol Reed
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

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