The Third Man
"Lime is one of the cinema’s greatest baddies."

What is it that makes The Third Man one of Britain’s best loved films? It is an oddity raised from the rubble of a post-war Europe wracked with paranoia; it drips with the peculiarly dry wit of the English; and its lead character has all the forward moving chutzpah we’d expect of an American hero.

Would such a film be made today? Its big name star, the inimitable Orson Welles, is on vacation for the first hour of the picture. It is gloomy, cynical and plenty of it is spat out in un-subtitled German. It mostly takes place in the kind of post-war Europe that Jean-Pierre Melville revelled in. Here it is always night, cigarette smoke alluringly alive in the air through which our hero walks those twisting, narrow streets, the wet cobbles slippery under foot, all leading to late night cafes in which the music and dancing girls are as intoxicating as the liquor.

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Graham Greene’s dialogue is a delight – “You were born to be murdered” – yet his intricate plotting is as bafflingly complex as a Rubik’s cube as events shift, twist and turn but the pieces never seem to fit together. Director Carol Reed works harmoniously with cinematographer Robert Krasker to create a visually ravishing film, with the camera often tilted at angles as jaunty as the infamous zither theme from Anton Karas.

In the vein of much good film noir, the plot is obtuse and secondary to the film’s atmospheric allure. For what it’s worth, American pulp Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in Vienna on the invitation of his long-time friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But on ascending the stairs to Lime’s apartment he is told by the rather eccentric landlord that Lime is gone, ascending some stairs of his own to the pearly gates up above.

After the funeral, Martins is given a lift back by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who gets many of the best lines. Calloway has little time for the deceased, claiming he was a troublesome black market bootlegger when alive. But Martins becomes suspicious about the death of his friend, so asks around. The landlord lets it slip that there weren’t just two men there – the wonderfully duplicitous Baron Kurtz and the Romanian Popescu – but there was a third man present.

Martins, and Lime’s lover Anna (Alida Valli), begin to suspect foul play, much to the chagrin of Calloway, and their investigative inquiries are met with hostility garnished with fantastically aristocratic manners. Even the children playing football are menacing, never mind the landlady wrapped in her blanket and the aforementioned Kurtz who makes holding a small cat more threatening than Blofeld, Bond’s perpetual nemesis.

The feline is ever present in the film, and best exemplified by the great, grinning Cheshire cat himself. Harry Lime is very much well and alive as a cat cavorts at his feet and an angry, babbling neighbour bathes him in light allowing Martins his, and our, first glimpse of his recently deceased friend. The track in to Welles’ face as a smirk flirts across his lips has rightly become one of the most revered in cinema.

There is a terrific pace and verve to the editing of the film from that point on, with a series of suspenseful chases across the battered vistas of Vienna, with some wonderful lighting creating vast bogeymen in the shadows. Lime is one of the cinema’s greatest baddies, Welles delivering his lines about the insignificance of the lives of the “dots” on the ground while on the Ferris Wheel with gleeful nonchalance. The film ends on a doleful, beautifully captured yet bittersweet note, which perfectly captures not only the tone of the film, but the glory of moving pictures.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2015
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A man searching for his missing friend in post-war Vienna uncovers a ruthless conspiracy.

Read more The Third Man reviews:

Laurence Boyce *****

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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