The superb, thrilling 'Third Man' returns in a brilliant restoration

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic

It was the rare film of Graham Greene's work that the novelist was happy with, the only example of Orson Welles' that the actor liked well enough to watch on television. A film of brilliant pieces that coalesce into a superb whole, it could only be "The Third Man," and it is back in the best shape of its life.

Opening July 3 for a one-week run at the Landmark Nuart, "The Third Man" appears in a new 4K version that was the toast of Cannes, the first restoration this Carol Reed-directed thriller has had since its release in 1949.

Just as much of a "Third Man" character as anyone played by an actor is the city of Vienna in those corrosive, casually amoral post-World War II days when it was divided into sectors run by each of the great Allied powers: Britain, France, America and the U.S.S.R.

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The film makes excellent use of real-life locations, especially the city's magnificent architecture, often glimpsed half-crumbling or standing destitute next to enormous piles of rubble. The atmosphere Reed and company created is as thick as the local coffee, an ideal setting for a world without heroes where everyone is either a fool, a cynic, a criminal or, quite possibly, a combination of all three.

Robert Krasker's Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography was essential in creating this ambience. Its use of disconcerting camera angles to depict a nocturnal atmosphere of deep and dangerous shadows, a dark world in every sense of the word, was key to its being named in American Cinematographer magazine as one of the 10 best-shot films of cinema's first half-century.

The film's other irreplaceable element is the indelible zither playing of Anton Karas. Though it's often said that Reed stumbled upon Karas playing in a small café outside Vienna and decided to employ him on the spot, Charles Drazin in his authoritative "In Search of The Third Man" says Reed heard him at a welcome party the day he arrived in Vienna.

The director's decision to use Karas for the score was unheard of, Drazin writes — "Like Steven Spielberg telling John Williams not to bother turning up and hiring instead a man he'd met on the beach with a penny whistle" — but it paid off. Karas' music became a worldwide sensation, leading to a U.S. ad campaign that promised, no kidding, "He'll have you in a dither with his zither!"

Into "The Third Man's" cesspool of casual amorality comes Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, never better), a bumbling, self-righteous and therefore dangerous American (Greene, who wrote the screenplay, didn't think there were any other kind) who has naive notions of justice plus a great deal of misplaced confidence in his ability to get to the bottom of things. Greene, who believed "innocence is a kind of insanity," returned to this theme in "The Quiet American"; in his and Reed's hands, "The Third Man" is the story of a man's unsentimental education, of the hard road he travels in the getting of wisdom.

A self-proclaimed creator of cheap novelettes with names like "The Lone Rider of Santa Fe" and "Death at Double X Ranch," Martins, "happy as a lark and without a cent," has come to Vienna at the behest of his oldest friend and possible future employer, Harry Lime (Welles). (It's been suggested that Greene based Lime on his devious close friend, Soviet mole Kim Philby, whose middle name was Harry.)

Unfortunately, everyone tells Martins, he has come just a bit too late. Lime has been killed, the victim of a random traffic accident, mourned by his girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and a pair of epicene Viennese named Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto).

Met at Harry's funeral is the film's ultimate realist, the unemotional Major Calloway (a crisp Trevor Howard), a British military policeman who tells Martins that his lifelong comrade was "the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city."

Filled with righteous indignation and never considering that he might be getting into something considerably out of his depth, Martins is determined to prove the major wrong and find out what really killed Harry, starting with trying to discover who an unidentified third man seen at the site of the accident might be. "Death's at the bottom of everything, leave death to the professionals," the major says, but Martins is in no mood to listen.

Director Reed does exceptionally well conveying the topsy-turvy nature of this world of smiling insincerity where a man typically speculates on Lime's afterlife state by saying, "He's either in heaven [pointing down] or in hell [pointing up]." Reed, whose other work included "Odd Man Out," "The Fallen Idol" and "Outcast of the Islands," was a masterful orchestrator of this kind of off-kilter ambience, the hopelessness of a universe turned morally upside down.

Reed and Greene also combine to create vivid characters very much of their time and place, like the smirking baron in his enormous, fur-collared overcoat incongruously walking through a Viennese cafe holding a tiny dog and a copy of Martins' "Oklahoma Kid" or the small boy (Herbert Halbik) living in Lime's apartment building who starts to resemble a sinister, malignant dwarf.

"The Third Man" provides defining roles for all its lead actors, especially Cotton as the hapless, self-pitying fool who thinks he's a hero in the making and for Welles in a part that French critic André Bazin called a milestone in his career. Welles' first on-screen appearance is one of cinema's great reveals and puts the actor's polished nonchalance and enigmatic smile to the best possible use.

Not that the American actor couldn't be fussy: Reed later recalled that Welles so rebelled against filming in underground Vienna ("Carol, I can't work in a sewer, I come from California") that his shots for those sequences were filmed in England's Shepperton Studios. Modern tourists, who've made "Third Man" tours of Vienna sewers quite popular, are considerably less finicky.

Though Welles wrote parts of his own dialogue, including the celebrated speech comparing the relative cultural merits of peaceful Switzerland and Italy under the bloody Borgias, the key directing choices were all Reed's.

That very much includes the movie's somber closing shot and its nervy unwavering camera placement that Sight & Sound magazine called a candidate for the greatest film finale ever. This ending was shot even though Greene objected to it, a position the writer recanted once he saw the picture.

"He has been proved triumphantly right," Greene wrote of the filmmaker. "I had not given enough consideration to the mastery of Reed's direction." No one encountering this film, for the first time or the hundredth, will make that mistake again.

A version of this piece was published in Turan's "Not to Be Missed: 54 Favorites From a Lifetime of Film."

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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