Directed by: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is about as close to a perfect film as you’re likely to get. It’s that rarest of movies in that it’s a filmmaker favorite (I’ve yet to meet the director who didn’t treasure it), a film buff’s delight and immediately accessible to the more casual moviegoer all at once. Why? Because it works on so many levels simultaneously and is positively breathless in its flow. From the very first scenes, The Third Man never really lets up. Director Reed’s voice-over about post-war Vienna and the start of the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is delivered at almost breakneck speed. It hardly even matters that the film’s mystery isn’t much of a mystery (assuming you know who Orson Welles plays). The story is always fascinating and the dialogue first-rate throughout, all delivered by a perfect cast in amazing settings and locations, and all framed by Reed in such a manner that there’s not an uninteresting composition in the entire film.
The story’s about a third-rate American writer of bad Western novels, Holly Martins, who lands in Vienna broke, but in hopes of a job from an old friend, who has inconveniently been killed a few days earlier. Martins arrives just in time for the funeral—and finds himself suspicious about his friend’s death, which plunges him into a very tangled web of deceit and more than a little danger. As pure entertainment, the film scores on every level, but never perhaps more than in Cotten’s famous scene with Welles on the giant Ferris wheel (a scene for which Welles wrote his own dialogue). If you’ve never seen the film (and there must be a few out there who haven’t), it’s an essential. If you have seen it, it’s worth another viewing (no matter how many you’ve had). And you can sit there and marvel at the studio fighting Reed tooth and nail over his determination that the film’s score should be nothing but Anton Karas’ zither music. Fortunately for us all, Reed won.
The Third Man, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, March 6, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.