The Third Man
"A triumph of direction, performance and script, The Third Man is deserving of the praise it still achieves as a true classic of cinema more than 60 years since it was released."

Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in post-war Vienna, a city divided into sectors amongst the victorious allies, only to discover that Harry Lime (Orson Welles)– the ex-school friend who invited him there – has died in mysterious circumstances. Martins attends Lime's funeral and meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who had been chasing Lime. Martins becomes suspicious about how his friend died and tracks down Lime’s acquaintances and enemies as well as Anna (Alida Valli), Lime's girlfriend, with whom he starts to fall in love. Martins discovers that Lime was embroiled in a shady world of black market dealings and the stage is set for a search of the dark Vienna streets, down into the underworld network of sewers, to find what really happened to Harry Lime.

Consistently appearing in lists of the top British films of all time, The Third Man has retained its lofty position not only for its technical brilliance but for the complex moral questions that lie at the heart of the film. Much of this is due to the script by Graham Greene who had a rare literary talent for compelling and intellectually rich crime stories. Greene's background as a film reviewer meant he understood the nuances and powers of the cinema; he was enthusiastic about bringing his work to the screen, scripting other adaptations including Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1947) and The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948) that also became classics of British cinema. While Harry Lime's famously profound ‘cuckoo clock’ speech was the work of Orson Welles, it is Greene’s tightly plotted narrative and ability to create compelling characters that work in shades of grey that helps the film endure.

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It is also easy to forget that Welles has comparatively little screen time in the film: much of the success of the film is due to Cotton who, as Martins, manages to create a protagonist who is largely ineffectual and yet redeems himself through his sense of morality. It is a remarkably selfless performance from an American actor whose work has often been overshadowed by that of Welles. Of course, Welles is at the height of his powers here, managing to be both effortlessly charming and completely repellent. Alida Valli as Anna and Howard as Major Callow add even more gravitas to narrative with beautifully judged performances.

Carol Reed’s direction of The Third Man cemented his reputation as one of the best British directors of the era. The film's classic look owes much to Robert Krasker's stunning cinematography, shot in wonderfully modernist film noir style and deeply indebted to German Expressionism. From the long, looming shadows of the celebrated sewer scene to the infamous shot that ‘reveals’ Lime from the shadows, this is a work created with meticulous care and attention during each frame. Anton Karas famously infectious and incongruous zither music also adds to the film's unique atmosphere.

The Third Man has endured for so long because it is a unique film noir thriller and a complex and political morality play. It is an examination of different cultures and ideologies struggling to reconfigure at the end of WWII that is resolutely controlled and beautiful crafted. A triumph of direction, performance and script, The Third Man is deserving of the praise it still achieves as a true classic of cinema more than 60 years since it was released.

(Editor's note: The majority of this critique first appeared in the Dictionary of World Cinema: Britain Volume 1 published by Intellect Books. You can find out more about the book – and the forthcoming DWC: Britain Volume 2 – at Intellect Books)

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2015
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A man searching for his missing friend in post-war Vienna uncovers a ruthless conspiracy.

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Robert Munro *****

Director: Carol Reed

Writer: Graham Greene, Alexander Korda, Graham Greene, Carol Reed, Orson Welles

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Erich Ponto, Wilfrid Hyde-White

Year: 1949

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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