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Third Man on the Mountain

by Charlie Largent Mar 11, 2023

Third Man on the Mountain
1959 / 105 Mins. / 1.66: 1
Starring Michael Rennie, James MacArthur
Written by Eleanore Griffin
Directed by Ken Annakin

CineSavant Revival Screening Review

From Newbery Medal to amusement park thrill ride, James Ramsey Ullman’s Banner in the Sky climbed the ladder as deftly as the men who scaled the mountains in his 1955 best seller, a fictionalized account of the first explorer to make it to the top of the Matterhorn.

It was rarefied air even for Ullman who, when he wasn’t writing, could be found shinnying up the nearest cliff side—though not recognized as a “high end” climber, the writer’s attraction to life or death experiences made him an honorary member of a lofty clique. In 1957, Walt Disney purchased the rights to Ullman’s novel and set the Mouse Machine in motion, first the tie-in paperback, then the Sunday comic strip, and after much fanfare, Disneyland’s Matterhorn, a towering bobsled ride that opened on June 14, 1959—all to promote the company’s upcoming Thanksgiving release, Third Man on the Mountain.

Just twelve months earlier Disney’s production crew was making its way to Zermatt, a storybook village nestled in the Swiss Alps. Ken Annakin, a specialist in comedy and stylish action fare, was signed to direct with Michael Rennie and James MacArthur leading a supporting cast of fine British actors including Laurence Naismith and Herbert Lom. Rennie plays the aptly named John Winter, a celebrated mountaineer whose character was based on Edward Whymper, the real-life conqueror of the Matterhorn.

MacArthur is Rudi Matt, a would-be rock climber who harbors a personal grudge against one mountain in particular, a majestic edifice called The Citadel (the actual Matterhorn stands in as the snow-covered monolith and contributes a pitch-perfect method performance).

Zermatt is a tiny burg and what little recreation it offers revolves around folk dancing and mountain climbing. Lizbeth Hempel is adept at both. Played by Janet Munro with a nod to Hawksian-style feminism, Lizbeth is alluring but tough-minded, and usually clad in jeans or a Dirndl. But even this strong-willed lass can’t make Rudi forget his insurmountable problems; the escarpments that loom over the village, defiant and dangerous. Those alps have a near-mystical pull on the locals who honor the most auspicious peaks with names like Wunderhorn and The Fortress—but such is their grip on certain climbers that they might as well be called “Moby-Dick.”

Rudi’s father was one of those men; Josef Matt was a guide whose dream was to conquer every mountaineer’s white whale, The Citadel, a giant among giants. Josef perished on those hills—an unshakable memory for the son who lives in the shadow of the deadly cliffs. But there’s another monument that casts a longer shadowJosef’s grave, a marker Rudi passes each time he takes the winding pathway up to the slopes. Whether that tombstone will be remembered as an inspiration or an obstacle is up to Rudi himself.

Rudi’s ill-tempered Uncle Franz is definitely an obstacle. Played by the usually congenial James Donald, Franz is a stout-hearted adventurer but as superstitious as an innkeeper in a vampire movie—he calls the mountain “evil” and instructs his nephew to stay away. He might as well try to stop the snow from falling—the next morning Rudi is back on the cliffs when a cry for help leads him to the foothills of The Citadel—trapped in an icy chasm below is John Winter, the unofficial King of the Climbers.

Rudi makes swift work of Winter’s rescue and it creates a bond between the two that will need all the strength it can muster; Winter has decided to use Rudi as a guide during his ascent of The Citadel. The experienced climber has another reason to invite the novice; Josef Matt knew of a secret passageway to the mountaintop and Rudi may be of help.

Once Rudi and Winter begin their climb up The Citadel, the movie keeps its head in the clouds and acrophobes need not apply; the ascent up and around the cliffs is both dizzying and suspenseful—and there’s one tight squeeze that may have a nerve-racking effect on any claustrophobes in the audience. A band of sturdy stuntmen handle some of the action but not all—the cast and crew participated and paid the price; James Donald fell eighteen feet from a cliff wall, assistant cameraman Pierre Tairraz broke three ribs, and Annakin himself suffered sunstroke.

Most of the cast remained unscathed including Herbert Lom as a prideful guide named Emil Saxo, a climber from the nearby village of Broli whose competitive spirit is embodied by the determined climber. Though Saxo is something of a cold fish, Lom gives the most humane performance in the film—especially next to MacArthur who is as stoic as the mountains he climbs. Conveniently, Rennie has the profile of a rugged precipice—always best when he let his statuesque handsomeness carry the day, Rennie’s cool style fits the character as well as the climate.

Eleanore Griffin’s script concentrates on the action rather than dialog, illustrating Rudi’s rite of passage through his single-minded crusade to honor his father (she used a similar approach on 1939’s Boys Town, for which she won an Oscar). Harry Waxman did the splendid photography and Peter Ellenshaw could have been listed as co-photographer—his otherworldly matte paintings completed the illusion that the actors were suspended over the steepest cliffs.

Third Man on the Mountain isn’t available on Blu ray but while we wait the movie can be found in a very fine transfer on Disney+ and iTunes.