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THE THIRD MAN: 2 Stars for a Dim Movie Remake

Another movie-to-musical, but this time, it's film noir.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Review By: Theatre Monthly Panel

Orson Welles, who starred in the classic film noir movie The Third Man, commented that Harry Lime was the perfect role. For the first 54 minutes of the film, nearly every character talks about him, lauds him, or laments him. But the audience doesn’t see Harry. The mystery and suspense build, with every scene like a battery of trumpeters heralding a new king who refuses to step up to the throne. Then finally Harry appears in a doorway, silhouetted by a bright light, shadowed by his fedora. In the film, it’s mesmerizing. In Trevor Nunn’s production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is not. The audience for this new musical is more likely to shrug and say, “I waited for this? How long will it take to get an Uber?”

Nunn, composer George Fenton and writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton have achieved extraordinary success in their careers, from Les Misérables to Sunset Boulevard. You would think with 300 years of experience and untold millions in royalties, they could take a chance and write a musical not based on a hit movie. It can be done (see Hamilton or the underrated Glory Ride at Charing Cross at both ends of this spectrum). Is it so irresistible to hit the rewind button on old DVDs and VHS tapes?

For those who don’t know the film, American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Sam Underwood) comes to Vienna to start a new job. He looks for his childhood friend Harry and ends up searching for the “third man” who carried Harry’s body away from the scene of a fatal accident. Vienna is a post-War disaster, marked by theft, kidnappings, beggars, and refugees. Harry, a black marketeer, fits right in with the blight. The city and the city’s spirit are broken. In the film, the only things that seem to work are the iconic Ferris wheel and the entrancing music of the zither. In the new musical the only thing that seems to work is the alluring set, designed by Paul Farnsworth and lit by Emma Chapman. They have skillfully created the shadows, fog, and miasma of the bombed-out capital.

As the hack writer Holly, Underwood races around alternating between anguish and puzzlement. He’s lovable, sweet-faced, and sometimes wobbly-voiced. If the songs were stronger, it would matter more. There are a few exceptions. Visitors to Vienna may be familiar with the Café Mozart, located near the opulent opera house. Composer Fenton and lyricists Black and Hampton have written a lovely song named for the restaurant. Simon Bailey, who starred in Jersey Boys and knows how to swagger, does his best with the role of Harry Lime, as does Natalie Dunne, who affects a Czech accent as Harry’s cabaret-singing girlfriend Anna.

Still, the greatest mystery at Menier is not, “what happened to Harry?” It is, “what happened to originality?”

The Third Man Review: 2 Stars


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