When I saw that TCM (Turner Classic Movies) was showing "The Third Man" earlier this week, I knew I had to watch it again--for at least the 8th time. I never tire of it.
Other films have greater plots and characters, but there is something unique about this 1949 classic, shot mainly in Vienna with the ruins of World War II still apparent in the dark streets so masterfully shot in black and white by cinematographer Robert Krasker, with his love of harsh lighting and shadows. The director, Carol Reed, owes much to Orson Welles' expressionistic style. And to a great screenplay by Graham Greene. (I didn't know all this until I just looked it up on Google!)
So the scene is part of the perfection, the look of the place, those wet streets at night, the aura of corruption enhanced by the ruined buildings and, of course, by the haunting, sad, strange music of the zither (played by and composed by Anton Karas). This music makes this classic the supreme example of film-as-atmosphere.
But mainly it's the look of the people, including ordinary people like the little boy with the ball who appears in front of the building where the mysterious Harry Lime has supposedly been killed.
The faces of fear and desperation in the cafes and streets of old Vienna are unforgettable. I believe that great films are essentially perfectly shot scenes of memorable faces, of characters who move us. At least, that is what draws me back to certain movies.
Joseph Cotten is perfect as the oddly named American writer, Holly Martins, who has come to search for his old friend, Harry Lime, and meets instead Lime's girlfriend, played with a sadness bordering on despair by Valli--another great face.
If "The Third Man" is new to you, find it and look at those faces. Watch for the cat in the doorway by the man's feet, which belong to Orson Welles, who finally appears mid-way in the movie, smiling enigmatically. Watch the fingers that emerge from the sewer opening near the end. Just savor that zither score. You will see why I think this is not only among the top ten movies I have ever seen but why it is high on most lists of cinema masterpieces.
If you ever had doubts about movies being art forms rather than just popular entertainments, see "The Third Man."