I read an interview years ago with Pedro Almodovar in which he said that when a film is really working, it seems to be dancing across the screen. “The Third Man” is a great dancer.
Directed by Carol Reed (“The Key,” “Oliver!”) and scripted by Graham Greene from his novella, the movie works as a dark comedy about corruption, a portrait of ruined postwar Vienna and a peek into the fathomless depths of the human personality. But when you think about it later, you don’t recall those aspects first. You think about the way it sounds and moves—the look and feel and rhythm of it, the way it looks, the way it shimmies and glides. It is, to borrow a phrase from the script, a magic lantern show, set to music.
The zither score, by Anton Karas, is a masterstroke, because it centers every scene, regardless of its emotional temperature, within a wry and knowing acceptance of how hard life can be—and how tough, philosophical and willing to take a joke you’ll need to be if you’re to have any hope of getting through it. It’s the musical equivalent of the serenely smug yet irresistible grin on black marketeer Harry Lime’s face the first time you see him lit up the residual light from an upstairs window. The movie’s hero, western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), is eventually shocked by what he learns about his old friend Harry, who seemingly died right just he arrived in Vienna but actually faked his death. Harry isn’t shocked, though; nor are any of the supporting characters, or the movie itself.
The Vienna of “The Third Man” is a hard, cruel place. There is a sense in which “The Third Man” is a morality play that seems to want to convince us of moral relativity (via all those slightly dismissive and self-deprecating remarks about Holly’s Western novels, with their good guys and bad guy) only to circle back around to something like traditional good-vs.-evil tropes, with Holly finally picking up a gun and doing in his old pal because he’s just too selfish and vicious to be permitted to live. And yet the movie dances improbably, gracefully, just as Harry improbably and gracefully runs up and down hills of rubble and through sewer tunnels to escape the cops. (In one extraordinary moment, Lime side-steps along the lip of a waterfall in a section of sewer, like a dancer/acrobat crab-walking along a tightrope.)
“The Third Man” has been restored at 4K resolution by Rialto Pictures, for digital projection. The result is mostly agreeable, and certainly a step up from watching a badly battered old print of a type that grows increasingly scratch and inaudible in the run-up to reel changes. As is often the case with high-resolution digital projection, there’s a trade-off. I thought there were the places where the movie looked too pristine, too crisp, and other places where the evident film grain (a part of the movie, which was shot on 35mm after all) had a fuzzy electronic aspect, which made it look a bit too much like digital noise. The 4K “print” I saw lacked the beguiling mix of sharpness and softness that makes the best-quality celluloid projection so pleasurable.
But there are compensations. You can see all relevant details in well-lit areas, but not in the deepest, darkest shadows, which respects Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s high-contrast visual scheme. This is a movie that respects the impenetrability of darkness, and communicates that respect via composition and lighting. It would have been a sin to disrespect all that, and the restoration team hasn’t. And the sound mix is perfect—gentle and dreamy during silent sequences, and joltingly loud but not overbearing during sequences that involve police whistles, gunshots, footfalls on cobblestones, and underground waterfalls. It is a suitably overwhelming aesthetic experience, a fugue state with jokes. Joseph Cotten, still one of the most under-appreciated leading men, gives one of his career-best performances as Holly, communicating the character’s peevishness and disappointment and intransigence but also his idealism and guile. There is not one second where you catch him acting.
I briefly toyed with trying to keep Orson Welles’ presence in this film a secret as I wrote this piece, because I did the same thing back in college before showing the film to a girlfriend who’d never seen it before and didn’t know anything about the plot or cast, and it increased her delight at that reveal of Lime in the doorway with a kitten nuzzling his wingtip shoe. (Walker Percy cited the Harry Lime reveal in his novel “The Moviegoer,” as a moment that felt more real to to the book’s movie-crazed hero than some moments in his actual life.) But what would be the point of a spoiler-averse bit of gamesmanship, at this date? Welles’ name is there on the poster and in the film’s opening credits; his sensibility seems to have informed the movie’s Expressionist shadows and tilted angles, and Reed and Greene don’t try terribly hard to convince us that Harry really got hit by a truck in front of his Vienna apartment building, as the official cover-up narrative claims. In fact there are shots of distant figures that we feel certain are Harry, or somebody who knows Harry, and he somehow manages to be an absent presence all through the story, probably because every important conversation is about him. The inevitability of Lime’s reappearance thus becomes part of the movie’s intimate, shared awareness of how deceptive people can be, and how we can feel at times as though we’re wandering through a vast conspiracy, and can see only the outlines, not the details.
And in the end, the details of Harry’s disappearance, as well as his
ongoing scheme to get rich selling diluted black-market penicillin, are
of secondary significance to the movie’s incomparable riches. I’ve seen the movie many times, and each time I notice new things, some of them related to the film’s place in movie history, others fleetingly enjoyable, like spotting a background detail you missed in a favorite painting.
The editing, by Oswald Hafenrichter, is fascinating for how it often splits the difference between continuous “real time” action and time-compressing montage editing. There are a number of cuts in the movie that feel almost like harbingers of the celebrated jump-cuts that Jean-Luc Godard popularized ten years later in “Breathless.” Lime’s actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) appears in an apartment doorway while Holly is seated, and he gets up, and the film cuts back to her and then to him, and he’s standing, in a different part of the room; the continuous music smooths over the visual disruption, just as it will do in the film’s first big foot chase, which fractures geography and time in a way that makes it feel like a recollection of a chase after the fact.
This may, of course, be an extension of the movie’s economical storytelling, which gets into scenes later and out of them earlier than almost any great film I can think of. There are scenes, particular in the early section, that last 30 seconds, or fifteen, and consist of little more than a couple of lines and a look. Throughout, there are little grace notes that remind us that even in a place as dire as the Vienna of “The Third Man,” it is still possible to be humane: I love how one of the cops gives Anna her lipstick as they’re taking her away. Also notable is the film’s barbed-wire postwar belief that people cross all sorts of lines in a war zone (or a post-war zone), and they have to go beyond the pale, as Lime does, before they can be written off as irredeemable.
Each time I see the film, Lime’s speech at the base of the Ferris wheel about Italy under the Borgia versus the pleasant tedium of Switzerland sounds less like an antihero’s marvelous self-justification and more like a hollow excuse (though I never cease to be amazed at how much life Welles’ packs into a handful of scenes); the scene where Trevor Howard’s police inspector leads Holly on a tour of the pediatric ward, and we sense the horror of what’s in those cribs by staring at Cotten’s horror-numbed face, feels like a definitive refutation of anything Harry might have to say. The movie can’t forgive Harry, and Greene, who knew thing or two about what people are capable of, gives us permission not to. It’s a very post-World War II attitude, this notion that one can understand evil and try to feel empathy for people who succumb to it while still punishing them. The final shot gets this across, too, in its muted way: Holly gets out of the car and waits for Anna, who’s walking down a long road through a grove of trees, and viewers primed by Hollywood (Holly-wood!) endings might expect that this story, too, will end with the hero getting the girl, even though in this case the hero killed the girl’s boyfriend. But no. She walks right on by, and Holly lights a cigarette, because what else can you do?