Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, black-market opportunist Harry Lime.
***PLEASE NOTE – THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE BEGINNING***
Has there ever been a character so crucial to a film’s narrative, yet one who features so little as ‘The Third Man’s’ Harry Lime? The enigmatic Harry Lime doesn’t appear until more than an hour into the runtime, only speaks at length in one scene, yet a smirk from Orson Welles and an analogy about Cuckoo Clocks and The Borgias cements his appeal. Of course we spend most of the time previous to this discussing Lime, with various unreliable narrators providing details of his untimely demise to his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American Pulp writer who has arrived in Vienna to meet his old friend. ‘The Third Man’ is often cited as the greatest British film of all time, and whilst I’ll stop short of declaring such latitudes, it is an outstanding piece of noir that combines an intriguing mystery and strong performances with a great setting in Vienna and the iconic zither score from Anton Karas.
The film begins with Martins arrival in Vienna and follows his attempts to track down Lime, who was apparently killed by a speeding car in the days before he arrived. After attending his funeral, Martins comes into contact with many of Lime’s friends and acquaintances which leads him to suspect foul play due to differing accounts of the accident that claimed his life – namely focused on the mysterious ‘Third Man’ of the title, who may or may not have been present. Joseph Cotten is great at playing Martins in detective mode, particularly as he becomes increasingly frustrated at the lies being told to him. The investigative nature of the early goings on does mean the film takes a while to get into its stride, but the atmosphere created by director Carol Reed and the post-war Vienna location make it all enjoyable to watch. The remnants of war damage gives Vienna a lived in feel and the time period just after the war allows for a situation where people of many different nationalities inhabit the city leading to an interesting culture clash between locals, immigrants and officials.
Like many noirs, lighting and shadows are crucial to the plot and they’re used to excellent effect here, whether it’s to illuminate a face, add a sense of surprise to an alley chase or in its most famous use, to unveil Harry Lime in one of cinema’s greatest reveals. This leads to another great sequence, where Cotten and Welles duke it out verbally on a ferris wheel, before the terrific concluding chase through the sewers. It’s testament to Welles performance in a small number of moments that I wanted Lime to escape, despite his crimes and undoubted evil. Reed’s direction is fairly unconventional throughout, utilising such disorientating techniques as ‘dutch angles’ to suggest an off kilter feel, and the stylish cinematography from Robert Krasker emphasises the grimy feel of a city in flux. The final key player in the film is Alida Valli’s Anna Schmidt, a woman who was romantically involved with Lime and forms a key link between the man presumed dead and Holly Martins. Valli’s performance epitomises the tired and weary feel of many of the film’s characters, and the relationship she forms with Martins is fraught with tension as the man that brought them together is the one keeping them apart.
‘The Third Man’ is a classic slice of post war noir, featuring a roguishly charming performance from Orson Welles and building a compelling mystery that feels both different, yet familiar at the same time. Excellent stuff.
Directed By: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trever Howard, Bernard Lee, Paul Horbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer and Erich Ponto