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The Third Man
Thriller, Mystery, Film-Noir
IMDB rating:
Carol Reed
Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins
Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt
Orson Welles as Harry Lime
Trevor Howard as Major Calloway
Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine
Paul Hörbiger as Karl - Harry's Porter (as Paul Hoerbiger)
Ernst Deutsch as 'Baron' Kurtz
Siegfried Breuer as Popescu
Erich Ponto as Dr. Winkel
Storyline: An out of work pulp fiction novelist, Holly Martins, arrives in a post war Vienna divided into sectors by the victorious allies, and where a shortage of supplies has lead to a flourishing black market. He arrives at the invitation of an ex-school friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job, only to discover that Lime has recently died in a peculiar traffic accident. From talking to Lime's friends and associates Martins soon notices that some of the stories are inconsistent, and determines to discover what really happened to Harry Lime.
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The Mysterious Third Man
Who is the third man? An accident has occurred, a man was hit by a car. Three men were on the scene, but only two have been identified and everyone refuses the existence of the third man.

The Third Man is the story of American novelist Holly Martins going to post-WWII Vienna, Austria to visit his friend Harry Lime. Upon arrival Martins learns that Lime was recently hit by a car in an accident, but Martins soon begins to uncover a conspiracy about a penicillin racket and this mysterious third man that leads him to believe that his friend might have in fact been murdered.

The Third Man is really a hit-and-miss film. The premise is ripe with potential for suspense, but there was never a moment in the film where the suspense really elevated to the level needed to really keep me on the edge of my seat. The mystery unfolds in a fashion in which is fairly predictable, the music to the film felt odd and out of place for a film noir, and the film's tone was constantly shifting. Just when the film seemed to be on the right track to hooking the viewer, it did a complete U-turn and went back the other way.

Even for all my gripes, the film has many great things about it. The performances from Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles as Martins and Lime were superb, the cinematography was simply marvelous, and for the time the direction was very unique, directed in a way that many movies weren't done till at least the 60s (the infamous sewer chase is the true stand-out moment of the film).

While the film has many things going for it, at the end of the day it doesn't stack up well against some of the finer mystery/thrillers in cinema history.

I give The Third Man a 6 out of 10!
The stuff of legends
Pretty much everything to love about film noir, just set in the crumbling ruins of post-war Vienna. There's something very off- kilter about "The Third Man", which is why I love it. The dutch angles, chiaroscuro lighting and (maybe best of all), that score. I don't think I've heard the zither elsewhere since first watching this movie, and the main theme hasn't left my head since. It's merry, haunting, catchy and altogether unusual, which is why it goes so well with this film. We're talking' John Williams memorable.

But getting down to the business of the actual movie, I can't recommend it highly enough. And even though it's a "film school" movie, you tend to find yourself getting sucked into the story and mood. The cast is excellent (with Orson Welles enjoying a movie-stealing opportunity), the structure is superb, and the hype is entirely justified.

One noir film that lives up to the hype
I've watched quite a few old noir/crime films by now, but The Third Man is the first one that really lives up to the genre's breathless descriptions given by its fans. It's sleek and sexy, well-shot, and lives in a morass of amorality. It's also tremendously fun to watch.

The key that makes The Third Man work where so many other "classic" crime films fail is pacing. It starts out slowly enough to draw the viewer into the uncertain world of post-war Vienna, and then slowly increases the pace of the twists and turns, while never being hard to follow. Its protagonist, a befuddled Western author, is a lot more sympathetic than your average private dick, which makes his descent into the underworld genuinely affecting. And of course, there's Orson Welles as the title role, which is pretty hard to beat.

Moreover, The Third Man doesn't disappoint on the idea front. It plays around with the ideas of truth, metafiction, and morality without ever coming to a definite conclusion. The rather sloppy climax is the only thing that keeps this from being a 10 out of 10, but even so it's thoroughly recommended, even for people who don't usually like old movies.
Classic Welles, Classic Greene
The Third Man is classic film noir. Combining the genius of Welles and Greene, the film tells the story of Holly Martins (Cotten), a writer of pulp western arriving in post-war Vienna, discovering that his school-boy friend Harry Lime (Welles), has met his end. Martins' curiosity into the events surrounding Lime's death are well founded as he seeks to find the truth surrounding Lime's death. What he finds about his friend Lime is the catch. Classic Welles, classic Greene...don't miss this film.
Film-Noir of a Different Kind
Much like the entrance of Laura in the film LAURA, Harry Lime's entrance into the dark world of post-war Vienna is one of the most unforgettable of all times and effectively erased any memory that Joseph Cotten, the main hero (and alter-ego of Graham Greene) was even in THE THIRD MAN. Photographed under an opening window in a deserted Vienna street, Lime comes into focus as a fleeting face with a smug expression and suddenly we remember Orson Welles was included in the credits. It's a very powerful moment -- one which has us, the viewer, shift our consciousness into wanting to see more of him, wanting to get to know him even if he is a shady, corrupted character. It's the One Moment in the film when it seems that time (in a country that makes clocks, something that Lime makes a joking reference to later on) stops dead in its tracks.

THE THIRD MAN is the one film-noir that doesn't have a treacherous femme fatale and the usual suspects but shady people and a growing sense of doom and despair. That in essence is the very nature of film-noir, where it began before demanding the appearance of a sexy blonde with evil intentions. A political theme and espionage reigns throughout without it ever being as much as hinted at, and betrayal is at every corner, something that Hitchcock would have loved had he directed this film. There is a distant echo of CASABLANCA reflected in the threesome at the center of this story with Anna being the reserved woman in the middle but this is not a lush romance. If anything, there is a strong anti-romantic sentiment here, not only because Anna has been irrevocably separated from Lime but she also will not be the one whom Cotten's Martins gets at the end. And in that sense, that pessimism is what film-noir is about.
Vienna Without a Waltz
Although I am as old as this movie, produced in 1949, I have not aged nearly as well. This film, directed brilliantly by Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol) and written by Graham Greene (long list!), beautifully captures the prevailing atmosphere of disruption and chaos that Vienna, a once highly civilized city, experienced during the years that followed World War II. The upheaval is physical, social, economic, political, moral, spiritual. You name it. Vanquished Vienna, conquered by the Allies, was crippled by turmoil in every imaginable way, and we viewers are given the opportunity to experience it up close, right here.

I spent a number of months in Europe during 1971-72 after I graduated from college. Although the war had been over for more than 25 years by then, I was struck by a very pronounced attitude of cynicism on the part of many Europeans regarding uniquely American ideals and principles, which were widely considered to be naive. To me, this film accurately captures this cultural and moral conflict, which lasted for decades and may even survive to this day. "You and your American principles," they would often scoff at me with mocking derision.

What does Anna (Alida Valli) know about the illegal activities of her lover, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), which includes selling diluted penicillin to Vienna's hospitals? For children with meningitis, watered down penicillin was not only useless, but it created an immunity from full strength penicillin so that these afflicted children could never receive effective treatment. Corrupted penicillin is a glaring symbol of a totally corrupted Vienna. Harry surely understands the full dimensions of his business, but what about Anna? Even after the truth about Harry's conduct and his victims is clearly revealed to her, she still sticks by him to the bitter end. Love conquers all? Seriously? While I don't blame her for rejecting the romantic overtures of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is somewhat of a schnook, what's up with her anyway? She reminds me of the Europeans who never once caught a whiff of the burning flesh from the crematoria of the concentration camps that sat just down the road from where they lived, as if the ill wind never blew in their direction. She is deeply in love with Harry, so just shut up about children with meningitis. OK, Anna, whatever you say, sweetheart. Perhaps those silly 18th century costume comedies in which you appear will provide the escape from reality that you so desperately seek, dear. At least you manage to crack a smile, as weak as it is, beneath your powdered wig on stage.

From beginning to end, the unusual camera angles, the dark, somber, mostly abandoned sidewalks of Vienna, and those drenched cobblestone streets contribute to the overall eerie and foreboding atmosphere of the film, which was remarkably photographed by Australian Robert Krasker (Odd Man Out, Brief Encounter). Unforgettable images and characters appear before us, emphasizing an overall mood of mayhem and awkwardness from every direction. We witness, for example, Anna's landlady, draped in a bedspread for warmth and extremely anguished by the disruptive presence in her house of foreign invaders hailing from not one but four different nations. Then we observe one of those ludicrous, bureaucratic "cultural re-education conferences" offered to the Viennese by the allied victors, presumably to rehabilitate them after seven years of Nazi domination. And where the heck did the balloon seller come from as he pathetically peddles his merry merchandise on the dark, nocturnal streets of Vienna, which are not only completely void of children at the time but of people in general?

And what of the inquisitive, confused character of Holly Martins, played with lithe agility by Joseph Cotten? If he has been a successful writer of widely consumed western novels that even the young British sergeant happens to read, why is he broke, and what kind of job would Lime have offered him in an unfamiliar, German-speaking Vienna that is gripped by post World War II disorder, unemployment, and foreign occupation? Construction perhaps?

While some reviewers have problems with the zither music of Anton Karas, I think that it contributes to the general atmosphere of nervous tension and uneasiness that pervades the air throughout the duration of the movie. Would you prefer Strauss waltzes instead? They wouldn't be nearly as effective in reinforcing the overwhelming atmosphere of chaos, even insanity, that plagues Vienna on so many levels.

Finally, we are brought to the hidden network of grand Vienna's underground sewers. What could be a more fitting symbol of the underlying unpleasantness that lurks beneath the thin, shallow surface of what we call "civilization"? It provides the perfect setting for the ending to a very unique film that very effectively portrays a world that has succumbed to a state of disorder, misery, and even madness. In the end, the sewer awaits. Bal-loon?
A movie ahead of its time
The Third Man is a movie that looks and feels not like a movie of the 40s, but like a neo-noir of the late 60s/early 70s. This wonderful example of classic noir is one of the all time greatest films. It combines amazing visuals, sounds, dialogue, and acting to tell a thrilling story and comment about the atmosphere after WWII.

Of all the movies durring the studio era (pre-1960ish), there are three movies with cinematography that always stick out in my mind: Gregg Toland's work in Citizen Kane, Russel Mety's work in Touch of Evil, and Robert Krasker's work in The Third Man (all starring Orson Welles funny enough). I just recently saw a restored 35mm version of The Third Man. The crisp black and white visuals of a bombed out Vienna are so breath-taking. Shadows are everywhere. The unique way Krasker tilts the camera in some shots adding to the disorientation of the plot. And who can forget the first close-up of Welles with the light from an apartment room above splashing onto his face; one of the great entrances in movie history (Lime gives his old friend a smile that only Welles could give).

The cinematography is backed by strong performances by Welles, Cotten, and italian actress Vali. The writing of Greene is wonderful; you can see the plot twisting around Cotten tightly. But what makes The Third Man so great is its historical commentary (well not really historical since it was commenting on its own time, but to us it is historical). On one level The Third Man is a story of betrayal and corruption in a post-war, occupied Vienna. On the other hand, its giving the audience a glimpse of the mood of Europe after the great war. The uncertainty that the Cold War was bringing is evident through out the film; Cotten is constantly trying to figure out who to trust. Vienna is on the frontier of the new communist bloc (we even see the communists infiltrating Vienna trying to bring Vali back to her native Czechoslavakia). The zither music score combined with the stark images of bombed out Vienna are reminiscent of the frontier towns of American Westerns. So The Third Man is not only a wonderful film noir, but a unique look at the brief time between WWII and the height of the Cold War.
Four men on a bridge
A great deal has been said about "The Third Man" by contributors to this forum. Having seen the restored copy that was shown at the Film Forum, recently, I could not resist watching this masterpiece once more when it was shown by TCM, the other night.

This movie owes a debt of gratitude to Graham Greene, a writer who had the most developed sense of intrigue among his contemporaries and one of the best writers of the last century. It also helped that a great director, Carol Reed, brought it to the screen. Mr. Reed was a director who had an eye for detail, as he demonstrates here, as well as in the rest of the body of work he left for us to enjoy.

The screen play is faithful to the original novel. If to all of the other elements we add the fabulous cinematography of Robert Krasker, the result has to be the masterpiece we see today. Never before has a city taken center stage in the development of the story that is presented here. Mr. Krasker's wonderful night vision of this city enhances the story as we are taken along for a fantastic trip of the post war Vienna of 1949.

The casting of this film is amazing. Never had so many excellent actors been thrown together in a film, as it is the case as with this picture. Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee, Ernst Deutsch, Paul Horbiger, Erich Ponto and Wilfred Hyde White are splendid in their roles. It is hard to imagine these characters played by other actors.

Orson Welles has perhaps the best part, even though his time before the camera is short. This must have been one of the best roles in which Welles appeared. Of course, there are so many others, but his Harry Lime is an original and could have fitted perfectly in one of his own films.

The music by Anton Karas is still haunting, with the exception of a few times at the beginning of a couple of scenes, when it startles the viewer and actually doesn't add anything to what we are about to see.

This film will live forever.
Zither Thou Goest
The Third Man refers to another witness to a crime that no one seems to know anything about. The crime of course is the hit and run murder of Harry Lime played by Orson Welles. But is Welles dead.

One of the things I like about The Third Man is that it makes a nominal hero out of one of the biggest bunglers ever put on screen. Let's just say that if Holly Martins played by Joseph Cotten were bumping into furniture on top of everything else, he'd be Inspector Clouseau.

Holly arrives in occupied Vienna in the late Forties at the invitation of an old college classmate Harry Lime. Literally upon arriving in Vienna, Martins learns that his friend Lime was the victim of a hit and run accident and the funeral is going on at that moment. He goes to the funeral and is smitten by Lime's girlfriend, Alida Valli.

Martins is a writer of western stories and it's bad when a writer starts believing he's one of his own heroes. Maybe Jessica Fletcher is capable of it, but not Holly Martins. Martins decides to start his own investigation into Lime's death much to the consternation of the British occupying force which doing its own inquiry. Trevor Howard plays Major Callaway of the British Army in charge of the investigation.

Martins turns out to be right that there is something more afoot than a simple traffic accident. But he's so terribly wrong about everything and everyone else it is frightening. I really can't say more at this point.

Someone reading the plot description I've given might think The Third Man is some kind of comedy, but it is not. It is in fact one of the most finely crafted dramas ever put on the screen. The location photography in Vienna is fabulous and contributes so much to the authenticity of the story and its characters. Joseph Cotten gives one of his best performances as the bull-in-the-china-shop amateur detective.

As for Orson Welles, it's a virtual tie in my opinion with Compulsion for the distinction of his finest performer as an actor without working for director Orson Welles. Harry Lime turns out to be the harbinger of a cynical age we were entering.

And if nothing else grabs you about The Third Man, that theme on the zither will stay with you forever. Definitely one of the ten best known movie scores ever.
The GREATEST Black & White Film Ever Made!!!
This is the film that saved Orson Welles's reputation. Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), is by far what makes Black & White films entertaining as well as exciting! The film stars Joseph Cotten, Valli and Orson Welles. The locations in the city of Vienna, Austria are quite impressive. Welles has so much to handle as his famous character, Harry Lime.

There was a concern from David O'Selznick over the casting of Orson Welles. Welles had a struggling career, after the making of "Citizen Kane", but Reed found Welles to be the right fit for the main project. The ending of this movie is a true work of Art, and the tension is certainly there for its audience. The Cinematography is what really makes this film work. The trick is that everything is uneven, and Cotten has a hard time pronouncing certain character's names.

The film earned the award for Best Cinematography. While Welles was back in the game, he still struggled to gain his independence as a film director. If there is one Black & White movie that truly earns its name, it is The Third Man, one of my Top 10 Favorite Films of all time!
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