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 — only to later learn that his most famous line was factually incorrect).
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. Then again, “The Third Man Theme” caused a brief mania for zither music when it became a hit record (even my mother bought the 78 — something I think I still have). Some may view an increase in zither records as a very mixed blessing.
I should probably admit that I went through a brief period 30 years ago where I incomprehensibly soured on the movie. I was wrong and I admit it, though I can’t account for it. But since I committed my wrong-headedness to print in an Orson Welles tribute article in Films in Review, it seems wiser to mention it. Looking at the film today, I can only marvel at what an amazing work The Third Man is on every level. It’s not just Reed’s striking direction with its precise use of Dutch angles that keep the viewer on uncertain ground as much as the events do Holly Martins. It’s not just the flawless perfornances — compelling in a movie sense, yet affording the illusion of reality. It’s not just the film’s then unusual ending. It’s certainly not just the zither score. No, it’s the perfect blend of all these things.
This, after all, is the movie — at least next to Citizen Kane — most immediately identified with Orson Welles. Yet the third-billed Welles doesn’t even show up till about an hour of the film has elapsed. Even then he only has the one big dialogue scene — after which he’s mostly a presence. But what a presence! Regardless, he looms over the entire film. The first hour can almost be taken as the build-up to his appearance. Probably no character in the history of movies is so talked about before we see him, or so drives the plot. In a way, it’s probably the greatest conjuring trick in all cinema — an accolade Welles, the would-be magician, would surely accept — and an astonishing one. But then The Third Man is an astonishing film in every way.
The Asheville Film Society is showing The Third Man on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 8:00 p.m. at The Carolina as part of the Budget Big Screen series. Admission is $6 for AFS members and $8 for the general public. Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther will introduce the film.