The Third Man (1949)
SPOILER ALERT: if you’ve never seen this film, you read the rest of this article at your own risk…
A broke Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in post World War II allied-occupied Vienna, to meet his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Lime has offered his friend and writer a job with his charity. However, upon arrival Martins finds that Lime was killed the day before, falling dead at his doorway after being hit by a car. Martins quickly attracts the attention of British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who ties to usher him out of town due to his association with Lime. Calloway has been working to rid Vienna of the likes of Lime and his associates. Using his background as a writer, Martins finds a sponsor to extend his stay in Vienna as the guest of Crabbin (Wilfred Hyde-White) the head of the Cultural Reeducation Section. This allows Martins the extra time to prove Lime’s innocence. Through his pursuits he finds himself surrounded by shady characters and a beautiful femme fatale. He learns that the circumstances surrounding Lime’s death are not adding up. Aside from the usual suspects, a third man witnessed Lime’s accident. Martins also learns that Lime was a truly despicable human being, and his lowest act was avoiding punishment for his crimes by faking his death.
Orson Welles would tell Peter Bogdanovich that the role of Harry Lime was a “star role.” The most of the film centers around talking about Harry Lime, when Lime finally appears in the film it’s as if the other characters have built up the character so much that a minimal performance will end up being a great performance to be talked about. Welles appearance in the film is dramatic though brief, however he had no direct influence over the film aside from his “cuckoo clock” speech. However, it is evident the influence Welles had on director Carol Reed. Much of the film is reminiscent of Welles’ films Citizen Kane (1941) and Lady from Shanghai (1947).
Noir films are typically thought as strictly an American style of film. However, The Third Man ranks on many lists as one of the best noir films, though it is a British production. This particular noir focuses on amateur detective Martins maneuvering to solve the crime of his best friend’s death rather than focusing on the criminal mind. We are given some insight into Lime and his crimes when we listen to his soliloquy on the ferris wheel. However, Reed’s stylistic approach is very reminiscent of the American noir, with the use of light and shadow and gritty streets. to the stories in American noir, Vienna becomes another character in the film. Post war Vienna with it’s beautiful buildings that housed great works amongst the ravages of war. This post war Vienna is occupied by the allied victors of the war. This occupation creates more drama for the film. Not only does Lime have to navigate pulling the wool over the eyes of one set of officials, but there are four different countries that control Vienna. As the big cities of Los Angeles and New York are central Reed would also use obscure camera angels reminiscent of Welles’ work and the work of German expressionists to further his dark atmosphere of confusion and mistrust.
Nothing can be written about this film without mentioning the zither score written by Anton Karas. Karas at the time was known locally in Vienna for playing the zither at wine-gardens. Reed wanted a sound for his film that Viennese in origin, but different from the typical Viennese waltz. One night while taking in some of the local flavor of Vienna he heard the music of Karas.
Images from: The Third Man Dir. Carol Reed. British Lion Films, 1949. DVD.
Tagged: Alida Valli, Anton Karas, British Film Noir, Carol Reed, Citizen Kane, Film Noir, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, The Lady from Shanghai, The Third Man, Trevor Howard, Wilfrid Hyde-White