No one could have planned it this way, but the biggest movie to open last week, “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” has two things in common with the best movie to open this week, Carol Reed’s classic 1949 thriller, “The Third Man,” which has gotten a digital restoration.
A bit of “M:I — RN” is set in Vienna, as all of “The Third Man” so indelibly is. And in Lalo Schifrin’s odd-metered original theme, it boasts one of the great aural madeleines. So, too, with “The Third Man,” thanks to Anton Karas’s incongruously upbeat yet somehow just-right zither music. With the sound of just a few notes, it all comes back: postwar Vienna — Harry Lime, the name of Orson Welles’s character — tainted penicillin — Welles and Joseph Cotten on that Ferris wheel — “free of income tax,” “Italy under the Borgias,” “the cuckoo clock” — the chase through the sewers — Alida Valli striding past Cotten after the movie’s second funeral.
Karas’s score, memorable as it is, can’t claim pride of place. Graham Greene’s screenplay has the cunning of an expert thriller and the acuity of a fine novella. It’s not perfect, thanks in part to Greene’s schoolboy anti-Americanism. It’s not just that Cotten’s character, Holly Martins, is such a dolt. It’s the way Greene dotes on his doltishness. Martins could be auditioning to be Alden Pyle in Greene’s “The Quiet American.” Still, that’s a small price to pay for a script so otherwise shrewd and unblinking.
Even more than Karas and Greene (or Welles, whose Lime may be the most irresistible villain ever to darken a screen), “The Third Man” belongs to Robert Krasker, whose work here won him an Oscar for best cinematography. Krasker’s camera reveals a dank, matte, defeated city — so dully vivid as to be a character unto itself — except that this Vienna becomes something altogether different seen at night or underground. In that velvety shadowscape, even rubble and sewage look glamorous.
In the London Review of Books, Michael Wood recently wrote of “the lens of the meantime” — that happy phenomenon whereby we superimpose on a movie we’re watching other movies that its actors have been in. “The Third Man” offers a wondrous case in point. Seeing Welles and Cotten together summons the shades of Charles Foster Kane and Jed Leland. Trevor Howard’s unflappable Major Calloway looks back to his doctor in “Brief Encounter” and ahead to Captain Bligh, in the first remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Then there’s Bernard Lee as the sergeant at Howard’s side. A dozen years later, he would debut as M, a part Lee played in 11 James Bond pictures. Which brings us back to aural movie madeleines. Monty Norman’s Bond theme may be the most potent of them all. Ah, but what would it sound like on a zither?
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Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.