Plot – Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, Harry Lime.
Director – Carol Reed
Released – 1949
When Holly Martins (Cotten), travels from America to Vienna on the bequest of his friend Lyme (Welles), He doesn’t expect to find his friend is dead and end up getting caught up in the murky world of post-war politics, the black-market and attempting to find out what happened to his friend. Not the most adventurous of plots, sure. But what The Third Man finds a way to turn a rather simple plot into one of the best British films of all time, which also happened to contain one of the best introductions in cinema history, that of Orson Welles’s character, Harry Lime.
The Third Man is Graham Greene novel come to life, which isn’t surprising since Greene also wrote the screenplay. But it catches the tone of his novel much more truthfully that any of the other adaptations of his ever managed and while many would call The Third Man a film noir, but I found it, unlike any other noir I’ve seen before or since, with the normal noir elements found hidden underneath all the seriousness of the plot. This isn’t to say there isn’t a tremendous sense of fun to be found in Greene’s storytelling, after all, he is out primarily to entertain you, but to find it you need to pay attention and engage your mind.
With Reed’s direction and the chaotic atmosphere of post-WWII, Vienna is wonderfully brought to life in vivid fashion, shooting amid bombed-out ruins and rubble. Even today this movie has some of the best cinematography ever shown, with the black & white used to great effect in producing some haunting imagery, especially during the breathless chase through the sewers during the film’s climax. This was a film that was not only designed to please the eyes but also the ears with the wonderfully quirky zither theme recurring throughout the movie, reminiscent of the music you’d find at a funhouse, designed to confuse and surprise the people inside, which of course is similar to the situation that Harry has found himself.
Onto the performances, which I found to be utterly flawless. For anyone who’s seen Citizen Kane would know how good Welles and Cotten could be and here is no different, with both charming their way through the excellent writing. But it’s Alida Valli for me who steals the show as a vapid actress attempting to avoid being sent back to Communist held east, I was glued each time she appeared on-screen and in my opinion it’s her character that goes through the biggest arc, finally choosing to forgo all the men and carry on walking without them.
To sum up, With Reed’s skilful direction, the wonderful performances by Cotten, Valli and Welles, the beautiful soundtrack, the gorgeous cinematography and perhaps most importantly, the story and screenplay by Greene, The Third Man is one of those rare films where everything seemingly falls into place and creates both an enjoyable film-watching experience and a true work of art.