The Third Man

The Third Man, 1949, British Lion Films. Starring Joseph Cotten. Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard. Directed by Carol Reed. B&W, 105 minutes.

Novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has arrived in post-war Vienna to take advantage of a job offer from his long-time friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover Lime was killed in an auto accident just days before. His funeral is currently underway, and Martins finds those gathered to remember him, including a Major Calloway. The Major tells him Lime was a criminal and his death was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Martins is encouraged by the Major to leave town immediately, but an offer to lecture gives him the opportunity to stay longer and look further into Lime’s death. He meets a man who claims to have been Lime’s closest friend (other than Martins), and says he was with Lime in his dying moments. Before the final breath left his body, Lime reportedly asked that Martins take care of his girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), an actress in Vienna with forged papers.

It isn’t long before Martins discovers Lime is still alive, and the search for his friend begins a treacherous journey through the lonely streets of war-torn Vienna.

Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard in The Third Man

Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard

The Third Man is marked by the city in which it is set and filmed, along with phenomenal cinematography, including that of the harrowed faces of the people of that haunted region. Much of the film was shot in Vienna, which was still ravaged by the war, with countless buildings and landmarks in ruins. The horrors of recent years are seen in the eyes of the carefully cast supporting players and the streets on which they walk.

The Academy-Award winning cinematography, some of the best one will see in any film, is evocative, melancholy and soul stirring. This is a movie that could only have been shot in black and white, and cinematographer Robert Krasker makes the most of the medium. The music, too, with strong use of a zither, sets the mood of a dark Vienna struggling to reclaim itself.

In addition to the Oscar for cinematography, The Third Man was nominated for Best Director and Best Film Editing, as well as numerous international awards, and won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix.

Alida Valli, Joseph Cotten in The Third Man

Alida Valli, Joseph Cotten

The Third Man was anticipated with great enthusiasm by German-speaking audiences, and its simultaneous release in Germany along with the rest of Western Europe was viewed by many as a conciliatory gesture by the Allied nations.

Filming the movie in Vienna was greeted with enthusiasm by local residents, who viewed any inconvenience, such as having portions of the city shut off at times, with pride. For a country struggling to rebuild, this was a significant morale boost, seen as a nod to future cooperation with other countries and peoples.

Marring the production was the erratic behavior of Welles, who refused to work in the sewers of Vienna, requiring the building of studio sets. He also frequently required stand-ins because of absences and a general reluctance to work even in the specially-built sets. However, he is said to eventually have become enthusiastic about the film, although he was remembered by cast and crew as being temperamental and difficult.

Today considered by many to be the best British film of all time, The Third Man is essential viewing for all fans of classic films. It stands out from other movies of its generation, and its pace and mood is distinctly different from anything Hollywood produced in the 1940s. Stay with it; it is worth every moment.