Go See This: The Third Man (1949) at the Film Forum

When I first saw the Carol Reed film The Third Man (1949) on TCM, however many years ago that was, I was definitely disappointed. It was a film spoken of so highly by so many eminent film critics and I just didn’t get it, whatever that “it” was. Earlier tonight I had the chance to see The Third Man again in a new restoration at the Film Forum, where the film is playing through July 9, and I am happy to say that my opinion has done a 180.

Contrary to what the IMDb and Wikipedia say, The Third Man is not film noir – not from my perspective, anyway. It is such a clever film, always winking and nodding at the audience, particularly in the unsettling, jaunty tone of Anton Karas’s zither score. While doing some searching for reviews of the film, I see that a lot of people can’t stand Karas’s music, which is a shame because it creates such a large part of the film’s atmosphere, along with Robert Krasker’s cinematography (I had forgotten those wonderfully canted angles…) and the ruins of postwar Vienna. The Third Man is not really about trying to solve a mystery; it’s not a whodunit, or even a whydunit. It is an observation of human nature, though not necessarily an explanation. Characters do things, usually to save their own skin, and not because it makes sense or is moral. I think that’s why I like Alida Valli’s performance so much better now; the “Anna Schmidt” character is a complex woman, not easily understood. You can imagine different reasons for why she yet does what she does, yet she is not (pardon the pun) black-and-white. There are exquisite subtleties that I never noticed before.

Now more than ever I also appreciate Joseph Cotten’s performance. I love how he interacts with Valli, with Trevor Howard and especially with Orson Welles. The relationship between Cotten’s Holly Martins and Welles’ Harry Lime is so striking because the contrast in their individual senses of principle is so jarring. Watching these two actors play against each other in the famous scene in the Ferris wheel in the “Prater” amusement park is an exchange as perfectly balanced as the interplay of light and shadow in the film’s cinematography.

I think that sometimes you need to see movies more than once, or maybe the difference is growing older and having more film experiences that deepen your appreciation of the medium. That was true for me with another great British film, Brief Encounter (1945), which was coincidentally also photographed by Robert Krasker. Perhaps the issue was that when I was younger I had the mentality that films needed happy endings, and if they did not have that expected conclusion, the result was dissatisfaction. (I felt the same kind of letdown at the end of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) too, come to think of it. It’s essentially Brief Encounter set in early 1960s Hong Kong.) Now I am able to recognize the value of The Third Man, not because the hero gets the girl or because all of the details in the various characters’ alibis check out, but because now I am aware of the depth and nuance in the filmmaking technique and in the performances. I don’t know if I have precisely or accurately described my reaction to The Third Man, but I know I feel something new when I see the leaves gently falling from the trees that line the road next to the Zentralfriedhof cemetery.

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