Movie Reviews

‘The Third Man’ and the Smartest Man

Orson Wells in The Third Man. Photo: Rialto Pictures


In an era of widescreen 3D blockbusters and IMAX mega-theaters, some will disdain the idea of going to the local multiplex to watch an old black and white film — even one roundly considered to be among the greatest movies of all time, featuring a haunting performance by a Hollywood icon and a taut yet complex script from an acclaimed novelist. Such narrow mindedness would deny those people a cinephile’s dream: the chance to see U.K. director Carol Reed’s quintessential film noir, The Third Man, which was just digitally restored to the sort of luster one would have expected from the first print off the master negative when the movie was released in 1949.

A Grand Prix winner at the Cannes Festival with an Oscar and a BAFTA Award to its credit, this masterful thriller reunited two stars of another all-time classic, Citizen Kane: Joseph Cotten and film-making legend Orson Welles. The Third Man, written by Graham Greene, traces the odyssey of American pulp-fiction author Holly Martins through the dark, dank streets and rubble of post-World War II Vienna as he attempts to uncover the truth of his friend’s death. Martins (Cotten), sullen and self-deprecating, comes to the once-elegant capital city of Austria, because of an invitation from the charming, manipulative Harry Lime (Welles), and arrives just in time to attend the latter’s funeral. Frustrated and seemingly abandoned by the man he thought of as his patron, Martins seeks answers and must navigate the local underworld, figuratively and literally, to get them. His search is made more difficult by a hard-nosed British army major, various minions of the Allied occupation, and survivors of the recent global conflict, including mistrustful Austrian nationals, dangerous black marketers, and a glamorous actress/femme fatale who had a yen for Lime.

Cotten is tough and dogged as Martins, while Welles gives one of his most resonant, enduring performances as the enigmatic Lime — his presence felt throughout the film, even though he only appears in a handful of scenes. As for the rest of the cast, they provide a banquet of brilliant turns, with Trevor Howard as the major, Bernard Lee as his sergeant, Alida Valli as Lime’s lover, and a parade of colorful European actors in supporting roles.

Although it was shot in the almost-square aspect ratio of bygone years, the framing combines with the camera’s off-kilter angles and shadowy environs to enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere as Martins’s adversaries close in on him and he gets closer to learning the fate of Harry Lime. The 4K restoration does the cinematography proud. If you can get to the limited theatrical engagement of The Third Man, you’ll be transported to a world of mystery, suspense, and romance. From the first notes of the film’s familiar theme music played on zither to the climactic chase through Vienna’s alleys and sewers, it holds up beautifully, 65 years on.

The Third Man: Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Avenue, 415-771-0183,; digitally restored version opens July 3.


Greg Proops is very smart and very funny — and he proves it regularly on his podcast, The Smartest Man in the World. He’s a savvy, endlessly clever stand-up comic, actor, TV presenter, and orator. A few times a month, he takes time from his club and concert tours and television work to sit down in front of a live audience in any given city and just wing it on politics, the media, sports, his teenage years, the arts, and much more. It’s an intellectual high-wire act — witty and insightful, always new and different, and it’s recorded and posted free on the Internet.

Now, he has written The Smartest Book in the World — a 321-page volume inspired by and based on his prodigious podcasts, which have been downloaded millions of times and praised by the New York Times and Rolling Stone, among others. It distills many of Proops’s idiosyncratic, forthright, frequently merry insights into the likes of literature, history, baseball, rock music, the cinema, philosophy, and comedy into one handy, portable tome that offers hours of provocative and droll reading.

Concurrent to the book’s publication, Proops is up to his usual touring hi-jinks and will be in San Francisco to play the Punch Line from July 23–25, opening with a special installment of his podcast followed by two nights of more conventional stand-up comedy.

Greg Proops: Punch Line Comedy Club, 444 Battery Street, 415-397-7573,, July 23–25. The Smartest Book in the World is available at stores and online. Proops’s podcast, The Smartest Man in the World, is available through iTunes and at

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster