Sunday, December 20, 2009

60th Anniversary: The Third Man

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of zither-mania. While that might be a slight overstatement, Anton Karas’s zither theme became an unlikely international hit after the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (trailer here), which is currently enjoying a special anniversary revival run at Film Forum with a new 35m print.

Indeed, Karas’s unaccompanied zither music is perfectly suited to Third Man’s post-war Vienna, where the city’s faded old world glory can still be seen beneath the wreckage and rubble left in the wake of WWII. As Reed’s introductory narration shrewdly explains, the Austrian capitol is now an occupied city, whose administration is divided between the Allied forces. By necessity, nearly everyone is involved with the black market, but some are better at working the rackets than others.

Into this noir world enters Holly Martins, a down on his luck dime novelist expecting to find work with his childhood chum, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Vienna, he discovers Lime is dead, the apparent victim of an auto accident. To make matters worse, Major Calloway, the top British MP for the zone, is not interested in pursuing the case. He claims Lime was just another racketeer, whose death probably leaves the world a better place. Still, Martins finds at least one potential ally in the inhospitable city: Lime’s lover, Anna Schmidt.

Schmidt is really Czechoslovakian, but fearing repatriation under the Soviets, she presents herself as an Austrian with forged papers Lime acquired. Indeed, Third Man compelling evokes the environment of occupied Austria, where the Soviet authorities are obviously more interested in rounding up nationals of their subjugated states than cracking down on the racketeering ring openly operating in their zone.

Adapted by Graham Greene from his own novella, Third Man is one of three true masterpieces of British Film Noir directed by Reed (along with Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out, which Film Forum also revived earlier in the year). With cinematographer Robert Krasker, he presents viewers with one strikingly off-kilter visual after another. Ironically, many presumed Third Man to be the work of Reed’s co-star Orson Welles, especially given the presence of the Mercury Theatre’s Joseph Cotton in the lead. Yet, Welles steadfastly maintained his contributions were limited to acting, as well as a few memorable improvised lines.

Welles is absolutely perfect as the title character, exploiting his larger-than-life screen presence to make a role relatively small in terms of actual camera time seem much larger. As Martins, Cotton masterfully expresses that earnest Middle American naivetĂ© and resourcefulness in the face of jaded cynicism and corruption. Though Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway is a bit of a stock figure, it is an excellent example of how a great actor can infuse character into a stereotypical role.

A masterwork of light and shadow, Third Man is a film that always deserves a big screen revival. From the Ferris wheel to the underground sewers, it takes viewers on a brilliantly expressionistic tour of a formerly grand city that had become physically scarred and morally compromised. It runs at Film Forum through Tuesday, December 29th.