An American writer of pulp westerns, Holly Martins, arrives by train in the war-torn, divided city of Vienna. He has been promised a job there by his boyhood friend, Harry Lime. Martins arrives just in time to attend his friend's funeral; he is informed that Lime has just been killed in a traffic accident. Martins seems determined to investigate Lime's death, in spite of being told repeatedly that he should leave the country and go home - both by Major Calloway, the British officer who was pursuing Lime for black marketeering, and by Lime's former lover Anna, with whom Martins is falling in love. Eventually, Martins learns much more about Lime than he ever wanted to know while grappling with questions of morality far more complex than those introduced in his western novels.
Producer/Director: Carol Reed
Executive Producers: Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick
Associate Producer: Hugh Perceval
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Film Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter
Assistant Director: Guy Hamilton
Music: Anton Karas
Makeup: George Frost
Sound Editor: Jack Drake
Set Designers: Joseph Bato, John Hawkesworth, Vincent Korda
Cast: Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway), Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine), Paul Hoerbiger (Porter), Ernst Deutsch ('Baron' Kurtz), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Hedwig Bleibtreu (landlady)
Why THE THIRD MAN is Essential
Film Noir is typically thought of as a purely American style or genre, but in 1949 two Englishmen - novelist Graham Greene and director Carol Reed - collaborated to flesh out an idea by producer Alexander Korda for a film set in the divided war-torn city of Vienna. The resulting movie, The Third Man
, was an overnight worldwide hit and is often listed as the greatest British film of all time. An American influence came from producer David O. Selznick and the stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, but there is no mistaking the European flavor of the movie. Shot largely on location, it captures the darkness and decay of the formerly grand city that is now littered with rubble, just as it captures the corruption and decadence in the soul of people warped by World War.
The Third Man
works on many more levels than merely the "entertainment" that Greene termed it to be. It wonderfully captures a time and a place unique in history; it is an early example of a cold-war intrigue that, while not depicting a single spy, can be seen as a prototype for spy thrillers to come. It also works as a study of post-WWII morality with Harry Lime viewing his victims not as human but as far-removed dots that stop moving. It is also a character study featuring a hopeless love triangle; and finally, The Third Man
is a classic of Film Noir.
The Third Man
won an Oscar® for cinematography at the 1951 Academy Awards (it also received nominations for directing and editing). Robert Krasker shot the night scenes of the film, which present a brilliantly stylized world filled with wet streets, shining cobblestones, shafts of brilliant light illuminating running shadows - angled shots with stark contrasts and deep-focus baroque detail. The flashy photography was not merely for show. It truly reflected the mindset of a city divided. The story, too, is served by the theatrics, and the corruption and decay of the city is also reflective of the corrupted morals to be found within. In a movie filled with wonderful performances, Orson Welles is truly unforgettable as Harry Lime. One of the great, complex villains of the cinema, Lime sets himself up in the Russian sector after being "killed" in an accident, and maneuvers about the city using the underground sewer system.
Aside from the intrigue that occurs in the city on this horizontal plane, it is interesting to note the parallel that the moral ambiguities of the movie have to the vertical plane, i.e., it is atop one of the highest points in the city that Lime rationalizes his crimes, while it is in the underground sewers that he conducts most of his business and is finally served justice.
Graham Greene and Carol Reed also present a fascinating character study and a most unorthodox love triangle. Our nominal hero is ineffectual and naïve. He arrives in Vienna as a know-nothing but never seems to learn his lesson. He falls in love with a woman that he hasn't got a chance with, because she loves a dead man.
Carol Reed directs with assurance in this, his greatest film. There were ups and downs in his career (he finally won an Oscar® in 1968 for his energetic but uncharacteristic work on the musical Oliver!
), but he brought together every disparate element with aplomb in The Third Man
. He had a sense of what would work in the film, even when at first it appeared to be a square peg in a round hole. The most rewarding example of this is the music score. Reed avoided using the expected Viennese waltzes, and instead scored the film entirely with the plinking jangle of zither music. At the time, it was considered an odd choice, but the result is quite unique and now it seems just right
The Third Man
rewards repeated viewings because it goes far beyond being a witty and exciting mystery-thriller. It flips all expectations on their heads by featuring an attractive embodiment of villainy and ineffective heroism; an enjoyable sense of cynicism and a bleak view of romance; a calming sense of chaos and a nostalgic vision of decadence. And when you meet Harry Lime, prepare yourself for a smiling justification for everyday corporate evil in the post-war modern world.
by John Miller