‘The Third Man’
Director:
Carol Reed
Stars: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli
Rating: NR
5 Globes

Carol Reed’s 1949 whodunit (or, perhaps, “wha’happened”) has been revived and cleaned-up countless times, but the latest scrubbing allegedly goes too far. The images, purists say, are digitized to the point where it all looks unreal, and certainly not anything like film. That’s not a great turn for one of the most ostentatiously visual of thrillers, which cakes a broken, postwar Vienna in engulfing shadows and disorienting canted angles. 

Still, even a grungy, cheapo VHS — how this writer first saw it — can’t destroy the embarrassment of other riches. On one level you can enjoy it as pure plot: Naive American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) heads to bombed-out Europe, only to find his friend, one Harry Lime, dead (allegedly!). The truth is second to “Psycho” as one of the most open movie twists, and knowing what’s coming allows you to root around in its evocation of a world undone by war. The people are as broken as the city’s statuary, and don’t take kindly to a sadsack American trying to impose his own form of order.

Indeed, “The Third Man” is best read not as an homage to Hitchcock — or to special super secret guest star Orson Welles — than as a study of what Carol Reed biographer Robert F. Moss describes as “the ineffectuality of goodness.” Our hero is a man of simple morality — naturally the writer of dimestore Westerns — who tries to do good no matter what. But doing the good is rarely simple, especially in postwar Europe. Martins may ultimately save untold innocent lives, but his actions leave at least two bodies in his wake. Meanwhile the unrepentant villain, given no redeeming values and scheming right to the end, is a charisma machine who steals the movie, and the girl he betrayed, with all of 10 total minutes of screentime. It’s a crackerjack thriller that’s ultimately about one man’s deserved irrelevance.

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