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  • Adam Carr

The Third Man, once again (Revisit)

There are those few films that can be revisited an unlimited number of times and instead of growing old they sprout new blossoms and give more pleasure through each viewing. #thethirdman is one such film. It helps the longevity of the film that it is filled with those tools that make any film re-watchable, clever dialogue, quick pace, a one of a kind score, a mystery and a series of visuals that sear themselves into the viewers' memory. And it needs them considering the story takes place in Vienna just after World War II, a time or place not thought about for three seconds by two thirds of today's population.

The Third Man
The Third Man

Based on the Graham Greene novel with a script by Mr. Greens it tells the simple story of an American pulp novelist Holly Martins (#JosephCotton) who was invited to Vienna by his friend Harry Lime (#OrsonWells in a role he was born to play) with the lure of a job offer. When he arrives, however, he discovers Harry was killed by being hit by a truck. When Holly digs for information he discovers that the police were told that two of Harry's friends were at the scene but other witnesses saw a third man. Who was that third man? Hence, the mystery.

"The Third Man" is laced with clever dialogue most of which the viewer absorbs while missing the next set that comes along. Which becomes a pearl of a surprise during the next viewing helping the film's longevity. Mr. Greene has some fun with B pulp novelists and the variations of Irish and English names as Holly confuses the English major's name Calloway with Callahan. He adds some nice flourishes that plops down in the story to help Holly get out of a jam such as the Book club looking to discuss literary titians but wind up with the Sisco Kid when Holly is their guest speaker.

The film is a collection of collaborators at the top of their game but none more then the #cinematographer Robert Krasker who deservedly received the Oscar for his work. This is the example to show when a present day movie goer asks why should a movie be made in black and white. Krasker does more with shadow silhouettes then in any movie since and to great effect. How can the rubble of post World War II Vienna and diving into its black market create more mood then filming it in black and white. It also claims one of the greatest first appearances of a character in cinematic history as a light from a lamp shines down from a second story window to reveal Harry Lime. And I'll try not to make it sound like a laundry list of memorable images but the chase in the Vienna sewers or through the alleys and streets at night or of the fingers of Lime through the sewer grates as he is shot would not have the same effect without the depth of focus black and white allows a cinematographer to have at their disposal.

Joseph Cotton and Orson Wells in "The Third Man"
Joseph Cotton and Orson Wells

The great director Carol Reed who has many classics under his belt won his Oscar for the musical "Oliver!" but nothing comes close to the artistry of "The Third Man." He brought it all together from the pace of the story filled with dialogue jewels to the visuals and acting. His tilted framing gives a sense of the off balance Vienna felt after the war and the citizens' attempt at normalcy. He'll have the distinction of creating the best character introductory shots in film and one of the best endings in cinematic history.

Mr. Reed's story is also helmed by some wonderful acting. Of course a great director's greatest skill is casting. Mr. Cotton has always been a reliable craftsman specializing in the everyday cad thrown into precarious positions. The English acting legend Trevor Howard gives wonderful depth to Major Calloway as one who's been worn down by his station in life but allows some compassion to seep through. Its fun to watch his right hand man, Sargent Paine being played with bravado by Bernard Lee who will go on to play James Bond's superior, M, in the first eleven James Bond films. And then there is Orson Wells who, no matter what film he's in, always commands the viewers attention. He's brought to life three characters no other actor could play, Charles Foster Kane ("Citizen Kane"), Hank Quinlan ("Touch of Evil") and of course Harry Lime.

Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt
Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt

But the real pleasure of this last viewing of "The Third Man" was the performance of Alida Valli who plays Harry Lime's girlfriend Anna Schmidt. Before this Ms. Valli's character was a distraction from the action. She was cold and brooding. The pace always slowed when she appeared and nothing clever was exchanged between her and Holly. I'm not sure why but this time around her character grabbed my attention. Ms. Valli did a remarkable job of showing an actress who used her profession, she only does comedies, to escape the dreariness of the city. She is helpful with Holly's investigations even though she doesn't understand why he puts in the effort. She opens up as much as she can with Holly but a soon as she finds out Harry's alive she's swaps loyalty. Her actions are dictated by the hopes of seeing him again. We Harry doesn't think much about her, and that gives an added dimension to her character and to the story as well. The renewed examination of this performance drastically changed my attitude toward Mr. Valli's contribution. This time the feelings she had for Harry hit me like a thunderbolt and added an extra punch in the gut to an ending that is already legendary. She jumped up onto the list of one of the top performances by an actress of all time.

Like all classics this film keeps on giving. The story entertains but every new viewing reveals something I've never seen before which still amazes me. I can't wait to get comfortable in front of it again.


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