Post- WWII Film Noir Masterpiece The Third Man, at Film Forum, Finally Complete and in 4K Restoration
By: Ellis Nassour
Run, don’t walk to the Film Forum to catch legendary director Carol Reed’s acclaimed film noir post- WWII masterpiece The Third Man (Rialto/British Lion/Selznick Pictures, 1949; 104 minutes), starring Joseph Cotten, the great Italian beauty (Alida) Valli, Trevor Howard, Vienna locations, Anton Karas’ haunting zither score, and, oh, yes, Orson Welles, will run at Film Forum through July 9 in a stunning 4K restoration by France’s Studio Canal.
The screenplay is adapted by Graham Greene from his novel, so you know you
can expect crisp, provocative dialogue and intense situations. But much of the film is downright funny, bordering on satire. It’s one of the most celebrated films of all time: Robert Krasker’s stunning expressionist B&W cinematography won an Oscar and Oswald Hafenricter’s editing was nominated. Their contributions are priceless.
The restoration used multiple sources. The digital transfer was made from a fine grain master positive struck from the original negative and Selznick’s U.S. release negative. Stability was restored by fixing issues such as warping, shrinkage, fading, accumulated dust, and scratches. Software with filters was used to remove tarnishing. Since the negative was the long ago nitrate stock, heat had to be avoided. The eventual restored negative was run though a scanner with an LED light source to create a digital format.
Amazingly, the film, Cotten, in one of his very best performances, and even Welles weren’t nominated. It won a BAFTA Best Film Award and Cannes honored Reed with its Palme D’Or. It made the AFI list of The 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. In the U.K., it’s still considered their Number One.
This is also the first time in the U.S. that audiences will see the complete film. For some strange reason, when David O. Selznick, still riding high as a result of Gone with the Wind 10 years earlier, bought the U.S. rights, he attacked the film with a vengeance looping off 11 minutes, This included a less-than 10-second shot of a nearly bare-breasted dancer and a hint of homosexuality that he might have been pressured to cut to appease powerful Joseph Breen and the Hays Motion Picture Code.
In postwar Vienna overrun with black marketers and divided in sectors governed by the occupying forces of Great Britain, France, Russia, and the U.S., pulp Western writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime (Welles), only to be told he’s dead – hit by a truck. [Welles doesn’t appear for almost half the picture – one reason might be that when he was supposed to be in Vienna , he was playing and attempting to raise money in Rome for his pictures; and almost had to be kidnapped back to the location.]
Holly gets caught up in a web of deception, and discovers his friend’s corruption in peddling tainted penicillin that’s killing and disfiguring hundreds. He also falls head-over-heels for Anna (Valli), Harry’s supposed great love who’s somehow landed in Vienna and on a forged passport. As he digs, Holly comes to the conclusion that that isn’t Harry in the coffin that was interred. Each scenario he comes up with is quickly dismissed.
Disillusioned with his quest for justice and ready to return home, Holly pays Anna a final visit. As he leaves, he glimpses a familiar face in a flash of light. It’s Harry, grinning impishly and very much alive. Holly gives chase, but Harry vanishes into thin air. The next day, he discovers Harry disappeared into a kiosk that’s a ventilation shaft for the sewers.
Vienna becomes the staging area for an edge-of-your-seat manhunt and a marvel of a chase sequence through the city’s underground chasms that have you gobbling handfuls of popcorn. Holly, after a secret meeting with Harry on the Ferris Wheel, discovers Harry has only been using Anna, and he sets out to trap him. Anna, still madly in love with Harry no-matter-what, accuses him of betrayal.
The Third Man is a triumph of film noir atmosphere with its post-war Vienna locations with the city divided into four sectors [British, French, Russian, and one shared by all the Allies] piled high with rubble from Allied bombing
Reed and Krasker somehow managed to shoot with the bulky equipment of the day in enormous underground vaulted and flooded tunnels and stone chambers with cascading waterfalls and, in a unique-to-this-day sequence on the gigantic Riesenrad Ferris Wheel. Throughout the film there’s crackerjack editing and Krasker’s use of wet streets, tilted camera angles, and giant shadows.
Bad boy Welles, tall, dashing, and smug with shameless charisma, when he does arrive onscreen, has one of the greatest star entrances ever. He also has some witty dialogue, such as this bit, which he wrote: "In Italy for 30 years, under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – and they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Then, there’s the beauty of Reed and Krasker’s legendary, seemingly endlessly drawn-out finale sequence done is a single shot of Anna leaving the cemetery after Harry’s burial as lovelorn Holly awaits to reconcile and sweep her away. , She walks past without a glance. Forget today’s CGI when you marvel at how falling leaves were added in post-production.
Welles was four-handfuls, related Reed, "but somehow we managed, even got along without raising our voices." Once Welles entered the sewers, he did a few set-ups, then went into a tirade about the stench and how he might catch typhoid. He shouted to Reed, "Get someone else to play this. I cannot work under such conditions!’ So, it’s mostly assistant director Guy Hamilton [who later helmed a number of top-rated films, including Bond movies] standing in, fitted out in a heavy coat with shoulder padding and a hat.
The picture if rife with scene-stealers: Anna’s female super spouting German, which no one understands but which doesn’t stop her; little Hansel and his ball; Wilfred Hyde White, who heads a literary club; and the cat. Don’t forget the cat.
One of the Rubik’s Cube mysteries of the novel and the film is Who’s the third man? Maybe you’ll figure it out.
The Third Man is a great film, made when movies were really movies!