Not without good reason, but nevertheless mis' />
PETER CALDER contemplates the dark charm of 'The Third Man' as it undergoes a cinematic resurrection.
Not without good reason, but nevertheless mistakenly, the world has come to think of The Third Man as an Orson Welles film. In many ways the 1949 classic belongs to him: he's not on screen for its first hour but until then his character, Harry Lime, is the main subject of discussion among the rest of the cast.
What's more, the insistent, jangly zither melody which is the film's signature music is more widely known as "the Harry Lime theme" than "the theme from The Third Man".
Welles also wrote a famous piece of the script which compared the artistic florescence of Italy under the Borgias with Switzerland where "they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock". However, he later claimed he'd plagiarised it.
But despite a visual style, all shadows and dizzy tilts, which recalled Welles' own groundbreaking Citizen Kane, he was just the star.
He enters like one, too. He appears first as two toe-tips pointing from a darkened doorway at the end of one of the cinema's most memorable tracking shots.
But Welles was almost never in it.
Director Carol Reed and producer Alexander Korda insisted on casting him over the objections of co-producer David Selznick and he repaid their faith.
His performance as a cynical racketeer in post-war Vienna was a lethally tasty cocktail of insouciant charm and undiluted malevolence which perfectly captured both the film's central theme and the malaise of the age.
The film's perfect structure - it begins and ends with Lime's funeral, and it's a testament to the fiendishly clever plotting that saying so doesn't even begin to betray the film's best surprises - is down to the artful storytelling of Graham Greene who wrote it as prose and then hammered out the screenplay with Reed.
In his 1980 autobiography, Ways of Escape, he recalls that no third man, not even Korda, ever joined the script conferences in which they covered miles of carpet in a day, acting scenes at each other. He graciously conceded that Reed's decision to overrule his romantic ending was proved triumphantly right.
The resultant storyline seems almost baroque but the movie is pure British noir. Filming almost entirely on location, Reed hosed down the Austrian capital's cobbled streets and shot mostly at night which suited the high-contrast black and white cinematographer of Robert Krasker, who won the film's only Oscar. The result is one of the truly great movies of the last century.
* The Third Man (PG, 105 mins) is playing at Auckland's Academy Cinema.