`Third Man' restored to all its deep, dark glory

Review: Parts were snipped from the noir classic for its release in this country. Now audiences have a chance to see what they've been missing.

May 21, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

A 50-year-old wrong is being corrected this spring, to glorious cinematic effect. "The Third Man," a thriller written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, is finally being seen the way the filmmakers intended.

When "The Third Man" was released in the United States 50 years ago, co-producer David Selznick did a little snipping first. It wasn't enough that he had convinced Reed to cast two American actors in the lead roles (a bit of meddling that had decidedly salutary results: The actors were Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten).

But, in order to make "The Third Man" less British, he had re-recorded Reed's own opening narration using Cotten's voice and had nipped and tucked the film all the way through, resulting in a movie 11 minutes shorter than Reed's original.

Since its original release, "The Third Man" has emerged as an enduring example of film at its most taut and expressive. Filmmakers and cineastes count it among the most influential films of the century. But most filmgoers have had to see it in its Selznick-ized version, on scratchy prints or (worse) videotape.

Not any more. "The Third Man," which opens today at the Charles, can now be seen in all its glory.

And what glory. A meticulously restored 35-millimeter print of the film fairly shimmers, giving Robert Krasker's extraordinary black and white photography its deserved due. The German expressionist roots of "The Third Man," as well as its debt to American film noir, are clearer than ever in this restoration, which allows the movie's deep shadows, extreme camera angles and spectacular settings to come into even sharper relief. In a scene in which a young boy accuses Cotten's character of murder, you half expect Peter Lorre to jump out of the shadows.

What's more, the restored few minutes of film allow "The Third Man" to unfold at a slower, psychologically tantalizing pace. The film is famous for three set pieces: an encounter between Holly Martins (Cotten), an American pulp author recently arrived in post-war Vienna, and his friend Harry Lime (Welles), whom he presumed dead, at a Ferris wheel in a deserted amusement park; a chase through Vienna's elaborate sewer system; and the film's final scene, a gorgeous long shot of Harry's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), walking down a tree-lined lane in a cemetery.

All three scenes have benefited from added footage. Lime's arrival at the Ferris wheel has been extended by seven seconds, during which we see him walk across the park; a minute and nine seconds have been restored to the chase and 35 seconds have been added to Anna's walk, a movie moment of such tension and beauty that it's impossible to imagine it being even one second shorter.

Bits here and there have been restored as well, only adding to the tensile, slightly decadent atmosphere of "The Third Man." Filmed in part on location, much of the movie takes place among the rubble of bombed-out Vienna, lending it a neo-realist air similar to Roberto Rossellini's 1945 post-war drama "Rome, Open City" and providing a stark juxtaposition with Vienna's voluptuous architecture and culture. Add Anton Karas' poetic zither score, Greene's satisfyingly complex plot and two outstanding performances from Cotten and Welles, and behold, the perfect movie.

To see "The Third Man" again is to remember that film's highest narrative and visual potential can be realized without billion-dollar budgets, special effects and overpaid movie stars. It just takes talent and brains.

`The Third Man'

Starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli

Directed by Carol Reed

Rating: This film is not rated

Running time: 104 minutes

Released by Rialto Pictures

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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