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The Thrills Come Zither and Yon

September 23, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Carol Reed was a director who knew that suspense could be urbane and civilized, even genteel. Like his countryman, Alfred Hitchcock, Reed enjoyed projecting a world of respectability where something fishy was going on just under the polite veneer.

Reed didn't make nearly as many movies as Hitchcock--and few would say he was as creative a filmmaker--but he did leave an impression with "Odd Man Out" (1947), "Outcast of the Islands" (1951) and "Our Man in Havana" (1959). Reed won an Oscar for his adaptation of the musical "Oliver!" in 1968, but that's not the picture he's most remembered for.

"The Third Man" has that distinction. The 1949 movie (screening tonight with "Double Indemnity" as part of Cal State Fullerton's fall film series) is a postwar mystery about black market profiteering and assorted other moral betrayals.

The theme was a common one for Reed, who routinely settled on the outsider's place in a society changed by war and how he adapted to it. The intrigue in "The Third Man" not only surrounds the apparent death of Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but how he came to be the scoundrel he was.

The movie begins with the arrival of a somewhat world-weary Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), Harry's friend who's been invited to Vienna to help Harry out with one of his schemes. The tone is nonchalant, but there's something weird going on. The first hint is the soundtrack--a single zither keeps playing in the background, a twangy peculiarity, almost annoying, foreshadowing the action.

Holly is soon told that Harry has been killed in a car accident. The facts don't add up, though: For one thing, he keeps hearing about a "third man" at the scene, a man the cops aren't aware of. Holly takes that as his cue to begin sleuthing.

The more he probes, the more the reasonable, civilized surface begins to crack.

Holly is something of a blunderer, naive in his own disarming way, but facts start to leak through. He's forced to realize that his longtime pal is not the man that he thought.

Reed rarely goes for the flashy gesture, although the speed-cut editing at the end is fraught with energy and desperation. There are no modern-movie action flourishes. Instead, Reed builds the thrill slowly, almost stodgily, to a cumulative effect.

The mood is set by shadows (much of the film was shot at night or in claustrophobic interiors), and the actors complement Reed's style. Cotten is as plodding and solid as Welles is slippery and perverse.

Although Welles is only on the screen for a few moments, the impression he makes is eerie. He's like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment," but with the gift of glib and a deceptively charming smile.

What: Carol Reed"s "The Third Man."

When: Tonight, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. (with Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" at 10 p.m.)

Where: Cal State Fullerton University Center's Titan Theatre, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Take the Riverside (91) Freeway to State College Boulevard and head north to the campus.

Wherewithal: Free.

Where to call: (714) 773-3501.

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