The "good" is that I did manage to get to Film Forum this Sunday to see the brilliant The Third Man. If you've never seen it, and you're in NYC ... seriously, rush down to Film Forum before it ends its run this Thursday. I can't do better than the essay I've previously mentioned written by A Girl and a Gun, but I do want to mention a few of the things that kept me mesmerized throughout my Sunday late-afternoon screening.
First is the brilliant zither-music played by Anton Karas. Aside from the rather unique sound of the zither, the entire opening credits play over a single shot of the instrument's strings playing the theme that will continue to repeat itself for the next 90 minutes. This is a very interesting choice for a film that spends much of its time hiding its secrets in the dark shadows of post-WWII Vienna. As soon as the credits are complete, we're thrust into the reality of a crumbling city where everyone exists in a carefully controlled chaos, rebuilding their lives and buildings simultaneously. Yet all the time, in the background plays this jaunty, romantic waltz-like theme. Even the darkest moments in the film are accompanied by a score that is light and uplifting, and as I sat watching the famous last shot meander to its ineviatble downbeat confusion, the vibrating tones of the zither kept making me feel like Fellini was about to lead his carnival of the absurd onto the road to follow Alida Valli into an unseen future. (Of course, 8-1/2 was still 14 years away, and I don't mean to mention a connection between the two. It's just what popped into my mind as I watched.)
Secondly, Robert Krasker's Academy Award winning cinematography is simply breathtaking when seen projected from a clean print as it was always meant to be. I don't think the advantage of projected film (rather than seeing a movie on DVD, even those phenomenal near-perfect editions from The Criterion Collection as is the DVD of The Third Man) can be better represented than by seeing an impeccably shot black & white film from this era, especially that might fall under the grouping of film noir. Citizen Kane is often hailed for its unorthodox cinematography, extreme camera angles and high-contrast lighting, influencing a whole generation of cinematographers, but The Third Man is a masters class in utilizing these techniques to enhance every element of the story of the film. Characters walk in and out of darkness with regularity, completely fading from view, only to return seconds later. But what happened in those seconds? What did we miss? What was about to happen during that time that never came to pass? What is often called one of the most famous "entrances" in all of film history -- the first appearance of Orson Welles as Harry Lime -- is more of a reveal and an abrupt one at that. We sit in wait for 2/3 of the film hearing about Harry Lime, wondering what the truth is, not knowing if we'll ever meet him, only to be startled into seeing him by the flick of a light switch. And just as suddenly, he's gone. Shadows running through rain-swept streets; dark-cloaked figures stepping through the smoke at a train station; chases through dark sewers with the tunnel entrances somehow bathed in bright floods of moonlight. It doesn't get any better than this, and it doesn't get any better than light pushing through celluloid and landing on a white screen.
OK, film geek moment is over. There are plenty of visually striking films out there, especially in today's cinema with much more sophisticated equipment and processing techniques. But I'm far more impressed with what those people controlling the camera in the 40s and 50s managed to do, creating cinematic tableaus which even some of the most talented DPs today would be hard-pressed to replicate.
The last thing I want to mention about The Third Man is simply the performance of Welles himself. Welles spends far less time on screen as Harry Lime than he does as Charles Foster Kane, but the impacts of both performances are not so far apart. There are some actors who have talent; there are others who have presence. The best of the lot are those who have both, and few actors in film history had more talent and screen presence than Welles. From the first shot of him hiding in a doorway with a sly grin (or is it?) on his face to the riveting scene between him and Joseph Cotten on the ferris wheel to the climactic confrontation with his old friend and inevitable denouement, what Welles' Lime says is almost irrelevant. His facial expressions and posture say as much if not more about the character than anything that comes out of his mouth. One can't take one's eyes off Welles, and while he occupies less screen time than probably any other character in the film, his Harry Lime is remembered more than any of them as well.
There is plenty more to rave about The Third Man It is one of those films (and there are many) that should be taught in high school classes due to not only its artistic merit, but also it's representation of post-war Europe.
Of course, with any good, it always seems that there is some accompanying bad ....