“The Third Man” revived at Music Box Theatre

By Drew Hunt

As part of its ongoing Weekend Matinee series, The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., is screening “The Third Man,” a classic noir directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles. The 1949 film stands as one of the masterpieces of post-war cinema, emerging at a time when most of Europe was still decimated by the effects of World War II.

Ethereal cinematography and a decidedly bleak, pre-Cold War atmosphere renders an already grave story much more somber. In the film, pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna after his old friend, Harry Lime (Welles), offers him a job. When he arrives, he learns Lime has died in an automobile accident, but it doesn’t take long for Martins to realize that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The experience of watching “The Third Man” remains unique. Stylistically, Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker use extravagantly expressionistic techniques, including tilted angles, starkly contrasted lighting and ominously photographed cityscapes. Vienna, as depicted in “The Third Man,” is a wasteland controlled by the black market, and Reed captures this corruption with his camera, filling nearly every frame with a sense of dread.

The script from Greene doesn’t hurt matters, either. Although framed by a pair of funerals and predicated on widespread death, the film remains something of a satire. Ultimately too austere to be comedy, Greene merges a myriad of conflicting tones, undercutting scenes of dread with a cynical joviality.

The film’s eccentricities are pushed even further when its music—rendered on a zither, a stringed instrument native to Austria and surrounding countries—comes into play. Dubbed the “Harry Lime” theme, it’s a cartoonish piece of music that feels entirely incongruous with the rest of the film, yet nevertheless contributes to its oddball mood.

Considering all this, at the center of the film is Welles, his influence felt in innumerable ways. Firstly, his performance remains one of the most iconic in all of film noir. But his presence represents something larger: Much of the film’s stylization seemed culled from Welles’ wheelhouse, leading some to wonder whether he had more to do with directing “The Third Man” than Reed did.

Like cinema’s own version of the Oxfordian Theory of Shakespeare’s authorship, some critics and historians have suggested that Welles directed a good portion—if not all—of “The Third Man.” Considering he’s only onscreen for approximately seven minutes (depending on which version you see), it’s not unfeasible.

However, director Peter Bogdanovich, among other people, has labeled this a misconception. Admittedly, “The Third Man” is clearly indebted to Welles’ style, and as Bogdanovich suggests, it is impossible to watch the film without finding winks and allusions to the likes of “The Lady from Shanghai,” “The Stranger” and even “Citizen Kane.”

But rather than some sort of bastardization of Wellesian technique, the film reads like a celebration of the man as an artist, and therefore adds to its brilliance. Without the influence of Welles, “The Third Man” would remain one hell of a noir. His added presence, however, cements it as one of the earliest examples of cinematic modernism, a supreme homage to one of the great minds of the medium who, as an artist himself, had arguably yet to reach his peak.