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Mostly noir

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  May 26, 2010

THE THIRD MAN (June 9 @ 6 pm; June 12 @ 1 pm), which came out the following year, 1949, is a noir mixed with a social-problem picture and a highly unconventional coming-of-age story. Justly famous, it’s one of the great British films, and the undisputed high point of Carol Reed’s extraordinary career. Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins is a clumsy, callow writer of American Westerns who comes to Vienna to take a job with his lifelong friend Harry Lime, only to find that Harry has just died in a suspicious car accident. When Holly begins to investigate, he discovers that Harry is alive (and played irresistibly by Orson Welles) — and that he’s not the man Holly has always taken him for. (This movie, too, could be called The Fallen Idol.) No one who has seen The Third Man can have forgotten Welles’s first appearance in the shadows, with a cat caressing his shoe, or the climactic chase through the sewers (magnificently shot by Robert Krasker), or any of the four central performances. The other two are by Alida Valli as Harry’s actress lover (Holly also falls for her) and Trevor Howard as the police inspector, Calloway.

Raymond Chandler lifted Reed’s plot for The Long Goodbye, a piece of thievery that Robert Altman acknowledged in his movie version of the Chandler novel by ending with a tribute to the celebrated final scene of The Third Man. But Greene himself had an unofficial source — that is, a source of inspiration — for his masterful screenplay: David Copperfield. The Third Man is Holly’s delayed coming of age. Like David, he discovers that his schoolboy protector, his earliest hero, is in truth an unregenerate bastard. No novelist has been adapted to the screen as frequently as Graham Greene, except for Dickens. In this screen original, Greene pays homage to his fellow literary treasure trove.

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