Break out your zithers: The Third Man is back.
Sixty-six years after Carol Reed’s noir masterpiece first debuted, The Third Man premiered again at the Cannes Film Festival in May, this time in a freshly restored print as part of the Cannes Classics program. It was a kind of homecoming: The Third Man won the Palme d’Or at the third Cannes in 1949, back when Europe was still rebuilding from World War II.
If Cannes is movie nirvana, a restored Third Man, which returns to theaters today, is something like seventh heaven. Ever since audiences first laid eyes on it, The Third Man has ranked as one of the most beloved films of all time, endlessly adored for its rich postwar atmosphere, its darkly sly humor and its deep, expressionist shadows. It contains one of the finest movie scores (Anton Karas’ indelible zither), one of the truly great scenes (Orson Welles’ “cuckoo clock”) and almost certainly the most spectacular foot chase ever.
The Third Man somehow encapsulates so many of the medium’s best qualities: wit and tragedy, lush imagery and charismatic stars, unforgettable lines and an evocative on-location setting. Roger Ebert said The Third Man “completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.” Welles said it was the only film of his he was always happy to watch.
Fans will be pleased to hear that the extensive restoration by Rialto Pictures, the first major restoration of The Third Man, has only enhanced and clarified the film’s gorgeous black-and-white photography.
Though Welles has sometimes been credited with helping Reed direct The Third Man, that’s been proved a misconception by film historians. Here he is merely an actor, and one that doesn’t enter the film until its second half.
Joseph Cotton stars as Holly Martins, a writer of cheap Westerns — “a scribbler with too much drink in him” — who has come to Vienna to visit his old friend Harry Lime (Welles). But Martins arrives to find Lime, a racketeer, has died mysteriously. Falling in love with Lime’s mourning girlfriend (Alida Valli) and feuding with a British major (Trevor Howard), Martins attempts to investigate his friend’s apparent death.
The Third Man, penned by Graham Greene, will likely always seem relevant for its depiction of postwar crime and the allure of Welles’ charming, rationalizing gangster.
“You know what the fellow said: In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance,” he says, disembarking a clandestine meeting atop a Ferris Wheel. “In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The Third Man persists, though, less because of any contemporary significance but because of its gem-like perfection, its sweet melancholy, its shadowy symphony.
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard.
Director: Carol Reed.
Screenwriter: Graham Greene.
A Rialto Pictures release. Running time: 93 minutes. Mild violence. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Beach.