It has captured my attention since the first time I saw it in 1991 for a film class in college. After moving to St. Louis, it was the first movie I paid to see - yes, it had been restored from a public domain print. Heck, it was even name checked in an episode of Law & Order.
What is it about The Third Man that brings me back, year after year, to enjoy in its dark noirish glory?
Part of it has to be the setting - Vienna in the years following World War II. Set designers would kill for the kind of gradual decay that the city provided. Split into four zones, it provided an excellent backdrop - a city unsure of its direction, a city barely held together, a city where anything could - and did -- happen. The climax at the sewers seems almost an afterthought - the city serves as a character in and of itself. It's mixture of old European opulance with post-combat wariness....it's the kind of place that Raymond Chandler would have written about if he lived in Europe.
The plot moves along at a crackling, yet leisurely pace - and for that, thank Carol Reed, the second greatest British filmmaker (after Alfred Hitchcock). Nothing seems out-of-the-ordinary, or forced - this is a film that is 100% killer, no filler. Reed's camerawork is dazzling without being overbearing, and every shot propels the story. Even at times when the plot may seem rather mechanical (and there's only one to speak of), Reed's confident handling of the material keeps the film moving. The dialogue crackles, the supporting players shine, and there isn't a bad step in the entire movie. (Go fifty-three minutes in and watch for fifteen minutes - you will never, ever see a better orchestrated cinematic sequence).
However, the lynchpins of this movie are Citizen Kane cohorts Orson Welles and (especially) Joseph Cotten. (I wonder if Cotten gave Welles pointers - after all, Cotten was no stranger to playing dark, morally ambiguous characters). Both men are similar enough in name (Holly and Harry), and it's their ability to give their characters moral weight - even in the midst of an amoral world - that is the film's greatest strength. Welles' infamous speech comes after a chilling monologue - but it's a sequence with Cotton and Trevor Howard in a military hospital that serves as the emotional climax, and brings home the themes of the movie.
Knowing what is moral in an amoral world.. Seeing people as ends rather than as means. Cynicism versus optimism - even a kind of weary optimism. It's a story that resonates through the ages, from the aforementioned L&O episode (dealing with counterfeit flu vaccine) to this Doctor Who story. It reminds us about doing the right thing even in the wrong situation, and of the worth of maintaining one's principles in troubling times.
And maybe that's why I keep coming back to it.
(As well as the radio series based on The Third Man)