Commentary: The Third Man digital restoration

Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins) and Orson Welles (Harry Lime) in the 1949 film noir classic "The Third Man," recently digitally restored (courtesty, Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins) and Orson Welles (Harry Lime) in the 1949 film noir classic “The Third Man,” recently digitally restored (courtesty, Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

‘The Third Man,’ 1949 film noir classic, returns to the big screen in luxuriant digital restoration

The 4K digital restoration of the classic film starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles is now playing in select U.S. theaters.

By Wayne Myers

The Third Man, Graham Greene’s 1949 tale of moral ambiguity set against a backdrop of the war-shattered grandeur of post-World War II occupied Vienna, has gotten a major digital restoration by Deluxe Restoration for Studiocanal. It’s a fun alternative to the usual superhero glut and computer-generated imagery (CGI) summer fare.

There probably isn’t a character with as little screen time that has achieved such iconic status as the black-clad villain Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. He pervades the story even before making his first “entrance” 65 minutes into the film.

That’s right, 65 minutes.

Few directors could pull this off, and Carol Reed does so magnificently, especially with another big choice — Anton Karas’s wonderfully odd zither music (Karas’s score would take him from obscurity to international fame), with variations on Theme from the Third Man, also known as the Harry Lime Theme.

Karas’s zither music lets us know that the rogue Harry is never far off the minds of the film’s principal characters. He may even be closer than they think. As the film’s alcoholic protagonist, Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten — who played a terrific villain himself as the urbane psychopathic Uncle Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt — wanders the late-night rain-slicked cobblestone streets of post-war Vienna. Martins is desperately in love with Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli).

A cat betrays the presence of someone in the darkened doorway — the first of the film’s series of betrayals. Holly, who thinks he’s being tailed, calls for the figure to step out into the light but gets no response. Suddenly, from an apartment above, a woman flicks on a light, revealing none other than a (very much alive) Harry Lime, who smiles bemusedly at his thunderstruck friend. Seconds later, Harry vanishes again into the shadows.

It’s one of the greatest entrances in film history — so good, you may wonder how the rest of the film can live up to it. It surely does.

The Third Man centers around the character of Holly — a flat-broke, second-rate writer of formulaic pulp westerns. Holly arrives in Vienna to take a job offered by his old chum, Harry — only to learn that he was killed just hours before in a street accident. Holly begins to suspect the death was no accident, especially after one witness reveals there was a third man on the scene — someone not mentioned in the inquest report.

Holly soon begins to suspect that his friend may not be dead at all, and in fact comes to learn that his Harry is the underground leader of a ruthless gang that trades in deadly, diluted penicillin sold on Vienna’s black market.

“You’re just a little mixed up about things in general,” Harry tells Holly, whose dangerous naiveté and pulp western view of the world costs two characters their lives. It’s an apt description for many of the film’s characters.

“You’ve got it all upside down,” Anna tells the relentless Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) in an attempt to obfuscate the pursuit of her boyfriend, Harry. When the porter in Harry’s apartment building tells Holly he just missed seeing his friend’s coffin, he says that Harry is “already in hell,” pointing upwards; “or heaven,” pointing downwards.

Big-hearted Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), a big fan of Holly’s work, tells Holly he’s read The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, but gets the New Mexico location wrong as he adds that he’d like to visit Texas some day. Anna’s harried landlady (Hedwig Bliebtreu) bitterly complains in her native German tongue about the disrespectful behavior of the international police searching Anna’s apartment, oblivious to the fact that only Anna can understand what she’s saying.

Orson Welles, in the iconic sewer-chase scene from "The Third Man"

Orson Welles, in the iconic sewer-chase scene from “The Third Man”

Evoking the expressionism of Weimar cinema, Robert Krasker’s crazy camera angles reveal a Vienna wrenched out of shape and hanging on the edge. The disillusionment, pessimism and sense of futility emanating from this stressed city are palpable. The days are bleak and the wet cobblestones of deserted streets glisten at night.

The film’s zither music becomes a wry commentary on Vienna’s moral chaos and the shifting loyalties among the principal characters as the game plays out. It turns deliciously melancholic after Anna rejects Holly’s love. Here, the music —  a variation on Harry’s theme that underscores that two men desire the same woman — brings an element of sexual rivalry into the film. Later, the music takes a lugubrious turn when we are shown a beautiful close-up of Anna’s tear-stained face as she lies alone in her darkened bedroom.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime

Orson Welles as Harry Lime

The casting of Cotten, Valli, Welles and Howard in the lead roles is about as good as it gets. The film also boasts a superb international supporting cast — including Harry’s sinister trio of associates: Ernst Deutsch as the unctuous Baron Kurtz, Erich Ponto as the cadaverous Dr. Winkel and Siegfried Breur as the rat-like Popescu.

In addition to Harry Lime’s entrance, The Third Man is known for three other standout sequences. In a joyless amusement park, when Holly and Harry finally come face to face and Holly presses for answers, the depth of Harry’s venality is revealed atop an oversized Ferris wheel, where his indifference to murder is capsulated in his “cuckoo clock” speech (dialogue penned by Welles himself).

The second memorable sequence takes place in the sewers underneath the city, and the third is the graveside finale, with Anna’s “long walk” at the very end. As she begins her walk down the cemetery thoroughfare (we already should know how this is going to end since the zither music is keyed to each character), we hear a reprise of the music played in the railway station café scene. Only now it has taken on a mocking tone.

The final zither notes are plucked staccato, as Holly is left with nothing else to do but to light up a cigarette as the leaves fall around him. Classic film noir.

Details Box:
What: The Third Man (1949), digitally restored; A Rialto Pictures release
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard
Time: 104 minutes.
Filming: Black and White, photographed by Robert Krasker
Story: Story and screenplay by Graham Greene
: Carol Reed
Music: Zither music by Anton Karas
Information: Visit for information on screening dates and locations

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