A movie critic once declared he envied anyone who had never seen “The Third Man.” He explained why--so the movie could be enjoyed for the first time.
I understand that sentiment. “The Third Man” is indeed a classic. Released the year I was born, it’s one I’ve seen repeatedly throughout my life, and it’s become my favorite movie.
Joseph Cotton was an actor I regarded as consistently one of the best from those days. A few years before his death, I wrote to Mr. Cotton, telling him why I thought he was one of the most rewatchable of all the screen actors. He seemed pleased to receive my letter and he replied, signing himself as “rewatchable Joseph Cotton.”
In “The Third Man”, Cotton plays Holly Martins, a writer and friend of the mysterious Harry Lime. He’s come to Vienna to search for the truth of what’s become of Lime.
Lime, masterfully portrayed by Orson Wells, is one of the cinema’s most compelling characters during the past 70 years. One of the first glimpses of him comes late into the picture in the form of a giant shadow, almost too big for the screen.
The character of Harry Lime was created by Graham Greene in a novella and then in a screenplay. Lime is a black market opportunist during the aftermath of World War II. Although Welles is not on screen as much as Cotton, when Wells runs through the sewers or rides the Ferris wheel, he masterfully captivates the viewer’s attention.
Filmed in black and white and on-location during post war Vienna, the city also becomes a major character.
Some minor characters may have been played by locals, speaking their native languages. I’ve never been able to completely understand some of them, including the old woman who’s wrapped in a blanket. Is she speaking German, Hungarian, Croatian, or something else? I don’t know; nevertheless, I can understand her body language and her emotions.
Tilted camera views contribute to the viewer’s empathy for the confusion experienced by several characters. There are many elements of mystery throughout the 105 minutes of the film. Where is the little boy with the ball leading us? Who can Martins trust? Just who is the third man?
Then there’s Anna who was close to Lime. She says, “I don’t know anything anymore except I want to be dead, too.” But what’s she holding back? Anna is played by Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein Frauenberg, an actress simply billed as “Valli” in the US. In “The Third Man”, her character is as intriguing as her full name.
I must also mention the Zither music by Anton Karas. Who would have thought the Zither would produce such a soundtrack. But it works. Oh, it really works!
I’ve enjoyed this film so much, I was compelled to travel to Austria. During our first trip to Vienna, I found the city to be much improved since WWII. Still, I found the cobblestone streets and the same Ferris wheel on which Welles delivered his Cuckoo Clock Speech. I didn’t check out the sewers.
While I found Vienna’s buildings and streets, and even the Ferris wheel, to be in color, I still can’t imagine the movie being in any version other than it’s black and white.
Others, though, to whom I’ve recommended this old movie, have hesitated to give it a viewing. They’ve been prejudiced to old, non-color productions.
Therein seems to be the tragedy. Many, who’ve not yet seen “The Third Man” will never experience the remarkable opportunity of seeing it for the first time.
Oh, well. If there’s any benefit of aging toward forgetfulness, then perhaps one day, I’ll enjoy viewing “The Third Man” as if it were my first time.