Today! Because in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance –
The Third Man (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed
Starring Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles (x3), Alida Valli, Trevor Howard (x2), Bernard Lee (x3), Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto, Paul Horbiger, Ernst Deutsch
Not coincidentally the basis for my favorite Pinky and the Brain episode, The Third Man is the classic film-noir mystery of Vienna, supposed murders, tense philosophical Ferris Wheel conversations, perpetually wet streets, and yes, a soundtrack dominated by a zither. I imagine this is an instrument with some manner of pedigree and respect, but I’ve always thought of it as a child’s toy, not unlike a kazoo. This is certainly because I had the small kid’s version back in the day, where you’d place the sheet music (shaped like the instrument) behind the strings. Let’s Google that quick:
The great, underrated frequent Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten plays pulp novelist Holly Martins, searching divvied-up post-war Vienna for the truth about his friend’s death. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler at this point that his friend, Welles’ Harry Lime, turns up very much alive, in one of the most famous character entrances in history.
It’s a wonderfully twisty, curvy film, light on real action but heavy on suspense and misdirection, from British director Reed, who would later win an Oscar for Oliver! in 1968. I’m not 100% on when I first saw this – I would guess college, when I really got on an Orson Welles kick. After Kane, you’d have to say his most famous role is that of Lime – a relatively brief performance that would stretch into a strange spin-off prequel radio show, The Adventures of Harry Lime (or The Lives of Harry Lime in America), a more light-hearted con-man thriller series. I mean, sure, to me he’s Charles Foster Kane first and Lew Lord a close second, but Lime provides him with iconic, memorable moments unlike almost any of his films. I mean, that sewer chase! That Ferris Wheel tête-à-tête! Yeah I had to look up all the accent marks!
The Third Man nabbed three Oscar nominations, including Reed’s second for Best Director after the prior year’s The Fallen Idol, and won for its gorgeous cinematography. It would also win for Best British Film at the BAFTAs, beating out the likes of Kind Hearts and Coronets, and was only thwarted from taking Best Picture (called then Best Film from any Source) by the world cinema classic Bicycle Thieves, or as I knew it for most of my life, The Bicycle Thief, or as they call it in Italy, Ladri di biciclette. Did they really just not know how to translate this title for a few decades?
Third Man also beat out She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad to capture the title of my favorite film from 1949! Way to go, all!
This marks Orson’s entry into the Three-Timers club, following narrating #135 History of the World Part I and his Dreedle-ing in #100 Catch-22, but it also marks the occasion of James Bond’s original M Bernard Lee making a non-007 appearance (#153 Dr. No and #138 From Russia with Love) and also joining the Threes! Spotlight!