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Film Review

The Third Man

Film noir began to emerge in the late 1930's and flourished after World War II, with the late 1940's being the golden age of noir. The definition of film noir is somewhat ambiguous. Most critics say that the dramatic black and white photography with heavy, ominous shadowing is an essential characteristic. Others say the characters must be driven, often criminal or at least severely flawed, invariably making the wrong choices. A major influence was surely German and other European directors fleeing the Nazis in the late 1930's, who immigrated to America and ended up in Hollywood, such as Fritz Lang. These directors were clearly influenced by German Expressionism and that style became evident on the big screen.

In 1948, Carol Reed, a noted British director (Odd Man Out), began to work on an adaptation of Graham Greene's novella, The Third Man. Greene wrote a convoluted mystery about love and betrayal set in post war Vienna. An impoverished hack writer of Westerns, Holly Martins, arrives in Vienna at the invitation of an old friend, Harry Lime. But when Martins arrives, he discovers that Lime has just been killed in a peculiar auto accident. Joseph Cotton plays the naive Martins, Orson Wells plays Lime, Trevor Howard plays an English major, and Alida Valli (hardly remembered today) plays Anna, Lime's tragic lover. All are excellent, especially Welles, who oozes evil. Reed insisted on shooting the entire film on location in Vienna, a courageous but risky choice. The city had been divided into four occupied zones: French, British, American, and Russian. The air war had come to Vienna late: bombings began in early 1944, with increasing raids from allied airfields opened in Italy, so that by 1945 the refineries, rail junctions and factories in and near Vienna were regularly bombed. Damage to the city was substantial, with 12,000 buildings destroyed, but not as devastated as Berlin. The decision to film in Vienna succeeded in giving a look and atmosphere that would have been impossible on sets. The cinematography has to be some of the most dramatic ever seen on screen, with its intense shadowing, peculiar camera angles, great depth of fields, and the widespread devastation amid still beautiful Baroque buildings.

One scene has the characters talking against a background of a huge rubble pile, with men silhouetted on the top as they dig. Vienna's giant Ferris wheel, which somehow survived the war, is the setting of an important segment of the film. The various shots of the wheel are amazing; each frame could be an art photograph. There is a chase scene in the enormous labyrinthine sewers under the city that can only be described as greatness in camerawork. And the final scene must be the finest closing scene ever. The tone of the film is increasingly sinister, with many of the minor Austrian characters menacing. So menacing and severe, along with the deep shadows, that It resembles a vampire film at times. Even as a silent film, The Third Man would be in any pantheon of film.

As if the visual weren't enough, the dialogue is memorable. Greene could certainly write. There are so many good lines that are now famous. From the opening narration: "I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm." And the major's comment to Martins: "You were born to be murdered." The most quoted is probably Lime's view of history: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Much has been made of the soundtrack, which uses only a zither, never used in film before, but seems a perfect fit. Nothing seems gratuitous here, every piece of this puzzle has a purpose. For instance, when Anna's cat runs away from Martins, Anna's remark that he only liked Harry seems offhand and insignificant. We soon see the significance.

In The Third Man, Reed produced a masterpiece that continues to be as powerful 66 years after it was finished. Age has not diminished this unforgettable film. How many films would fit that description? Not many. This is as good as it gets on screen and this cinematography needs that big screen. The newly restored version just opened at Opera Plaza and the Shattuck (Berkeley). It may not run a second week, so don't delay in seeing it. Most of you, like myself, saw this years ago, but seeing it anew on the big screen was a marvelous experience. Running time: 104 minutes.

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