Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Third Man’ — The perfect film?

The Third Man courtesy of Studiocanal 05
If perfection can ever truly be achieved in the field of cinema, The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, may well be the winner, says Berkeleyside’s movie critic John Seal

There are very, very few films I consider ‘perfect’ —  if perfection can ever truly be achieved in the field of cinema. Any discussion of ‘perfect films’, however, surely must include The Third Man (1949), a suspense classic coming to Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas for a short run beginning Friday, July 3 in a newly remastered print.

Directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American traveling to Austria for a job offered him by old friend Harry Lime. Arriving in Vienna, Martins is told that Lime has been killed in a horrific traffic accident — but the truth of the matter is that Lime has staged his own ‘death’ in order to escape responsibility for selling deadly black-market penicillin.

Reed’s film magnificently blends suspense and noir sensibilities, as Holly pursues Harry’s ghost until a third act ‘reveal’ in which Lime finally steps into the spotlight. That he’s played by Orson Welles somehow seems oh so appropriate: scarred, rejected, and hated by the studio system, Welles’ was about to embark upon a life in the cinema shadows. His demeanor in The Third Man suggests he was well aware of the fact.

Also on hand is the silver screen’s quintessential Englishman, Trevor Howard, as British Army officer Calloway, who tries to convince Martins that his friend isn’t exactly on the up and up; and Italian starlet Alida Valli (billed here simply as ‘Valli’) as Lime’s erstwhile girlfriend Anna Schmidt, whose questionable immigration status has caught the eye of the city’s Russian Sector authorities.


Your average Hollywood film would, of course, conclude with a Martins/Schmidt final fadeout clinch, but Graham Greene’s screenplay deftly and cleverly avoids succumbing to expectations – despite Reed’s cheeky use of a long shot that suggests one is on the horizon. Romantics will be disappointed; all others will exhale with relief.

Amongst the film’s many other pleasures is Robert Krasker’s stylized black-and-white photography, which brought the ‘Dutch tilt’ to the masses. Krasker remains one of the greatest of all cinematographers — his work on The Third Man earned him a richly deserved Academy Award, and he also lensed Brief Encounter (1947) and Billy Budd (1962) — but his name, sadly, has largely faded from collective memory.

And of course, let’s not forget Anton Karas. Discovered playing his zither in a Viennese wine bar by Reed, Karas composed the film’s once heard never forgotten ‘Harry Lime Theme’. Despite studio concerns that the music was a bit too odd for a mainstream picture, the ‘Harry Lime Theme’ became a massive pop success (as a child, I played my mother’s 78rpm copy of the record endlessly) and proved the perfect accompaniment to the happenings unfolding onscreen.

While I haven’t seen the new HD restoration screening at the Shattuck, it surely provides one a great opportunity (and a great excuse) to reacquaint yourself with The Third Man. And if you’ve never seen it before, you really should take advantage of this opportunity.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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