Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Carol Reed's masterpiece: 'The Third Man'

If you read much about "The Third Man" (1949) you'll run into claims that it's a near-perfect movie. Such assertions seem to flow mostly from the safe notion that no feature film can be "perfect." But whatever flaws nitpickers might see in Carol Reed's film noir masterpiece simply don't play as mistakes to me. So I'm here to say that in my book, it's as close to perfect as it's going to get. 

"The Third Man" (1949): B&W. 104 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Screenplay by Graham Greene. Music by Anton Karas. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard.

Note: This film noir classic is basically a who-dunnit murder mystery set in crumbling post-WWII Vienna. Or, is the real mystery a matter of who was murdered? Since each of the principle characters in the story is hiding something, well, the truth lurking in the shadows isn’t so easy to see ... much less, to grasp.

It seems the legendary film critic Roger Ebert found more than just a measure of perfection in this beloved movie: 
  • "Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed's 'The Third Man'?"
  • "[It] was made by men who knew the devastation of Europe at first hand. Carol Reed worked for the British Army's wartime documentary unit, and the screenplay was by Graham Greene, who not only wrote about spies but occasionally acted as one. Reed fought with David O. Selznick, his American producer, over every detail of the movie; Selznick wanted to shoot on sets, use an upbeat score and cast Noel Coward as Harry Lime. His film would have been forgotten in a week. Reed defied convention by shooting entirely on location in Vienna, where mountains of rubble stood next to gaping bomb craters, and the ruins of empire supported a desperate black market economy. And he insisted on Karas' zither music." 
  • "Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies." 
Click here to read Ebert's entire review.

The characters moving through the film's deliciously twisted plot can be seen as representing various shades of gray truths, set before a harsh backlight cast by the bitter reality of the times. Within this story, they, too, are perfect: 

Joseph Cotten (who was from Petersburg, Virginia) is perfect as Holly Martins, a pulp fiction writer. He's the stubborn, naive American, in way over his head in a strange part of the world. More specifically, in Vienna and down on his luck, Martins is riding for a fall. Atop a Ferris wheel he winces as he asks his once-trusted old friend, Harry Lime, "Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Orson Welles is perfect as Harry Lime, the suave opportunist who answers Martins question with the beginning of a chilling and memorable speech: "Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"

Trevor Howard is perfect as Major Calloway, the voice of reason and reality. He knows a situation with no good options when he sees one. As a military man, acting as a policeman, he just hopes to prevent more wreckage. Recognizing what a sap Holly is, Calloway says: "Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don't know what you're mixing in, get the next plane ...You were born to be murdered."

And, yes, Alida Valli is perfect as Anna Schmidt, the war-weary European. She's loyal to her instincts and passions no matter what comes. Hey, Anna has seen it all. Thanks to Harry's effort to obscure her past, together with her own charm and savvy, she has kept her secret hidden ... so far. Anna says: "A person doesn't change just because you find out more."

Can't reveal the role the cat plays in the story. It would give too much away, but the cat is perfect, too.

On Sun., Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. only, you can watch those characters come alive in the new 4K restoration of "The Third Man." See it on the Byrd Theatre's big screen and hear it through The Byrd's deluxe sound system. Maybe you, too, will call it perfection!

For more information and to see who's already planning to come, visit the Bijou Film Center's Facebook event page.

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