Film noir classic ‘The Third Man’ returns to screen

Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal/Courtesy

“The Third Man” is a classic black-and-white film that suggests that not everything is black and white. Its allure lies in its exploration of human uncertainty and the ambiguous nature of human motive.

First released in 1949, the esteemed British film-noir movie earned a series of accolades, including the 1949 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, a BAFTA award for best British film and an Academy Award for best black-and-white cinematography. This summer, a 4K digital restoration of the star-studded film will come to U.S. theaters in a release by Rialto Pictures. The restoration honors the 100th birthday of Orson Welles, who stars in the movie in one of his most prominent roles, Harry Lime.

The story begins rather mundanely. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a naive American Western novelist, travels to postwar Vienna to visit his childhood friend Lime (Orson Welles). But Lime has died in a car accident — or so the two men who transported Lime’s body insist. Martins interrogates witnesses and friends of the deceased with the lurking feeling that his friend was murdered. And soon, something gives: The porter of Lime’s building insists on the presence of a third man at the scene of the accident. As the plot thickens, the viewer delves deeper and deeper into Lime’s alternative life as a black-market dealer.

Structurally, the film is well paced, with action scenes that are complemented by charged, sharp dialogue. The plot moves forward with moments of immense pathos. The key moments rely on a subdued kind of fear, one deeply entrenched in reality — a basic distrust of other human beings.

The story starts off with Martins’ fundamental distrust of the strangers he encounters in Vienna.  The novelist believes that the so-called witnesses are lying, that his friend’s death was premeditated. But gradually, his suspicions point toward his own friend. As the plot twists and turns, basic distrust evolves into a more metaphysical kind of fear — the arbitrariness of morality. The film ultimately asks, “What world would we live in without justice and moral guidance?”

“The Third Man” is truly a thematically intelligent film. Ostensibly, it explores timeless themes, such as betrayal and good versus evil. But as the film itself suggests, there’s always more than meets the eye. Through characterization and dialogue, “The Third Man” tastefully and subtly illuminates Cold War politics.

The male-dominated cast lends itself to the film’s exploration of Cold War tensions through the lens of masculinity. The clever characterization plays a crucial role in extracting these underlying tensions. Both Martins and Lime are Americans, and their mutual love interest is a Czechoslovakian woman named Anna (Alida Valli), who would otherwise be a Russian citizen had she not forged her passport. Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British policeman, and Martins frequently butt heads, always seeking to prove the other wrong. Defensive and proud, these male characters constantly seek domination and power as the plot progresses.

The film also explores the forms of loss tied to translation and, in doing so, suggests the danger of being in a foreign place without knowledge of either custom or language. Martins, for instance, encounters awkward moments with the native Viennese because of his inability to communicate in their language. This, too, adds an element of uncertainty, gesturing to the heightened paranoia of the ’50s.

There’s no denying that the film succeeds on a technical level. Aesthetically, the film is a black-and-white wonderland filled with eerily slanted angles and impressive framing. The characters frequently carry conversations at tilted angles. This signifies an off-centered world — a corrupt, imperfect postwar world. These Dutch angles, a hallmark of film noir, add a dimension of anxiety to the viewing experience. The asymmetrical shots of Viennese streets and ramshackle buildings further set the film’s uneasy tone, while the action-packed nighttime scenes are packed with light and shadow tricks.

Acoustically, the soundtrack steers clear of the stereotypical dramatic gloom-and-doom sound of thriller films. It instead opts for Anton Karas’ debonair zither sound, suggesting a twisted, darkly ironic kind of humor in juxtaposition with themes of corruption and betrayal.

“The Third Man” truly earned a prominent spot in British film noir. In faithfully following the ’50s tradition of suspenseful cinematography, it proves to be a delightful mix of the dramatic and the macabre.

“The Third Man” opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday.

Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected].