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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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A noir journey through postwar Europe.
Graham Greene is one of the most acclaimed authors of the 20th century, and, unlike many such literary talents, he recognized the merits of film, and took work as a screenwriter for the British film industry, including several collaborations with producer/director Carol Reed, of which "The Third Man" is the most famous. Greene's works tend to be divided into two main genres: his meditations on Catholicism in the modern world ("The Power and the Glory", for example) and his work in the spy and crime genres, the category to which "The Third Man" belongs. It is also the high-watermark for director/producer Reed, though he would only earn his Best Director Oscar some two decades later with the musical "Oliver!" "The Third Man" is one of the great achievements in film noir, and, perhaps, in film in general.

Greene's path in researching the film is in many ways mirrored by the character he ended up creating, one Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, a prolific actor of the era who never reached the level of recognition of Stewart, Grant, or Bogart); arriving in Vienna, Greene prowled the bombed-out streets and drank in the Casanova Club, talking with local officials. He was inspired by stories of postwar shortage, organized smuggling, and the interaction of the four great powers in the early days of the Cold War. Martins arrives, having been summoned by his prewar friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles, in what is, apart from Charles Foster Kane, his most famous role), only tot find on arrival that Lime has been mysteriously killed in a car accident. The local British security chief, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) insinuates that Harry was a notorious racketeer involved in everything up to and including murder, and Martins, a writer of pulp novelettes about gunslingers, refuses to let that explanation stand. He delves deeper into Harry's world, from acquaintances such as Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutch, who couldn't appear less trustworthy if he tried) and Dr. Winkle (Erich Ponto), who were both present at his death, and, most importantly, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czech living in Austria on a forged passport provided by Lime to help her avoid repatriation to Soviet-held territory. Martins' first big lead? Witness reports that an unidentified third man was present at Lime's death.

"The Third Man"'s plot suffers from a case of what TV Tropes would call a 'Rosebud': the fact that the main plot twist is common knowledge because of the movie's notoriety (and, like the original Rosebud, Orson Welles is involved). We all know that Harry Lime isn't actually dead because he is due to appear and give him famous speech about cuckoo clocks (though Welles is listed in the opening credits, so perhaps it was never that big a secret). However, there is still plenty in the movie for the viewer to be surprised about, just as "Citizen Kane" retains its lustre.

The movie has several great performances, starting with Cotten as the 'very American' (in the worlds of Peter Bogdanovich) lead man, Alida Valli as Anna, Trevor Howard as Calloway, and an enjoyable comic turn from Bernard Lee (later M to the Connery, Lazenby, and Moore incarnations of James Bond) as Calloway's batman, a sergeant who is quite a fan of Holly's writing. The performance that everyone always ends up talking about is Welles, however, in what amounts to an extended cameo (two scenes, the second with basically no dialogue).

The other notable production components include the music, provided by Anton Karas on his zither string instrument, who was hired on the spur of the moment after impressing the director at a wartime party, and it was an inspired choice, though it may jar some people expecting more traditional noir stuff. The film is filmed in the actual postwar Vienna, still a place of ruined buildings, providing for a very high level of verisimilitude.
"The Third Man" is a masterpiece by British director Carol Reed filmed from a screenplay by famous writer Graham Greene. This is one of the best European film noir, with its distinctive atmosphere of postwar moral chaos and hopelessness, and an unhappy romantic love story that describes the crime and moral decay of the world in which the protagonists are trying to survive.

After the end of the second world war-torn Vienna is divided into four zones, each governed by one of the military police of the winning countries - US, Soviet, British and French. Holly Martins (J. Cotten), American writer, comes to Vienna as he was invited by his friend Harry Lime (O. Welles), offering him some work. Holly came to the house where Harry lived in a rented apartment and finds out that Harry was killed the day before - run over by a car in front of the same house. Shocked, Holly finds himself at Harry's funeral and meets two British military officers, Major Calloway (T. Howard) and Sergeant Paine (B. Lee). Calloway is interested in late Harry Lime, and he examines Holly, advising him at the end to leave Vienna because of the danger. Holly meets two of Harry's friends, Baron Kurtz (E. Deutsch) and Popescu (S. Breuer), who allegedly witnessed Harry's death. Exploring the unfortunate circumstances of Harry's death, Holly is puzzled by many contradictions, Holly begins to suspect that something is wrong ... The character of criminal Harry Lime is one of the most charismatic in the history of film, and Orson Welles plays it with a lot of charm and humor. Particularly notable in the film music of Anton Karas zither on a theme Harry Lime is one of the most famous evergreens in history of film music. Reed's film won the 1949 Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the Oscar for best picture.
A glorious thriller
Carol Reed's The Third Man is set in post-war Vienna- a hypnotic city, which is in consideration of the mountains of rubble and general sorrow of the are- and stars Joseph Cotten as Holly, a writer of hokey B-Western novels who's come to visit an old chum named Harry Lime. He finds out Lime is dead, but that there is more to his old friend than he knew since before the war, along with Lime's girl Anna (a sympathetic character?). Then when the revelation is shown of Lime's face on a darkened street, the film reaches an elegance rarely seen today in pictures.

Orson Welles, who plays Harry Lime, has in fact a role much like a cameo, having a speech with Cotten on a Ferris Wheel. Even before his "cuckoo clock" finale, we get the sense this is one of these classic scenes of all time, leading up to an unforgettable chase in a sewer. Along with precise, Oscar Winning cinematography, and an ever-entrancing musical score, The Third Man is one of the essentials for movie buffs. A++
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.
A work of ART
This movie starts REALLY slow. I mean you have to watch half of the movie before anything happens. It's worth the wait. Unfortunately I don't have much to add that hasn't been said before, the plot, the writing, the actors, the staging, the lighting, the cinematography, the music, everything is a work of art. Every detail is perfect too. Many are unrepeatable. We will never see bombed out Vienna again, and certainly not like Carol Reed showed it. Then there is Holly Martins, the pulp fiction writer in a pulp fiction noir movie written by Graham Greene. And it goes on and on, but I've reached my ten lines. They don't make the like they used to...
That Terrific B&W Cinematography
In a bombed-out Vienna just after WWII, novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives from America to renew a friendship with his childhood buddy, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Much to the dismay of Holly, a freak auto accident has recently killed his friend, according to those who knew Harry.

But in searching for details of Lime's death, Holly gets contradictory stories that don't add up. One of the persons who knew Lime is an attractive woman named Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) whose continued presence in the story invites suspicion. The film's plot has Holly searching for the truth about his friend, while trying to stave off a city detective, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who tries to persuade Holly to leave Vienna.

The film's story is okay. But what makes "The Third Man" really interesting is the B&W cinematography, by Robert Krasker. Unlike most films, camera movement here is restricted, so as to draw attention to each frame's geometry. Typically in this film, a frame is tilted at an angle so that both vertical and horizontal points of reference are off-kilter. Frame images thus become a series of diagonal straight lines and curves. Further, very high-contrast lighting, especially in outdoor scenes at night, creates a bizarre, almost nightmarish look and feel, and are suggestive of German Expressionism.

All of which results in a visual disorientation for viewers that parallels Holly's disorientation both in the streets of Vienna and in his understanding of the circumstances surrounding Lime's absence. In most outdoor scenes there's a conspicuous lack of crowds, a lack of hubbub one would expect in a bustling city. Instead, only a few secondary characters appear in night scenes. This sparseness in characters on the streets conveys the impression that hidden eyes are watching Holly, ready to pounce at any moment from out of dark shadows.

"Everybody ought to (be) careful in a city like this", says one character to Holly, as an implied threat. Soon, a man who wants to give Holly some valuable information is murdered.

The script's dialogue is quite impressive, with some interesting lines and points of view. Some of the dialogue is in German, which enhances authenticity.

The film's acting and editing are very, very good. Adding a slightly romantic, and at times melancholy, tone to this dark film is the music of the "zither", an instrument similar to a guitar, but sounding quite different.

My one complaint about this film is that it's hard to keep tabs on some of the background characters. Trying to connect names with faces can be difficult, resulting in some confusion.

"The Third Man" tells an interestingly bleak story, set in a bleak, desolate urban environment, rendered truly mesmerizing by the creatively surreal B&W cinematography.
The Greatest Film of All Time
It took me several years and a lot of thought, but as someone who enjoys movies, I selected "The Third Man" as the greatest film ever made. I have a list of similar favorite films, and it is hard to rank them in order of preference (it often depends on my mood, so many are equally great).

Here are a few reasons:

1) "The Third Man" is the most outstanding reason for why I love to go to the movies. It welds images, sounds, dialogue and music into my memory, my personality, and my soul. When I think of why I love the cinema, I think of this film as an example.

2) Joseph Cotten. The man has a screen presence wrought not from the elements which make other "Great" actors like Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart, but from his own normalcy. He is Joseph Cotten, a nice guy, someone you'd like to have speak for you at a college admissions board or at a traffic court. He's the kind of guy you hope your new girlfriend's dad is like. He's not just "nice", either, in a Cary Grant way. We actually like the guy. And it is this niceness which hurts us most when we see what he must do.

3) Alida Valli. She was in the 1977 hidden treasure "Suspiria", but otherwise dropped from view after this film, in which she blasted through a handicap (that accent) with the most affecting female performances of all time--we love her and hate her, because she's the unrequited love to end all unrequited loves.

4) Orson Welles. He's such a convincing bad guy, but he's the coolest. In the pantheon of directors, he was sometimes overlooked as an actor, but here he tops them all. He almost has us taken by his scheme, and we doubt the movie (and Major Calloway) will be able to counter him. It does, nearly, and he becomes both the despicable rat villain and the glorious rebel martyr at the same time.

5) The zither score.

6) The final shot.
Good vs evil in a devastated and confused world
"The Third Man" is considered by many as the best British film ever (e.g. British Film Institute 1999 poll, Sight & Sound polls). It is a landmark in worldwide cinema notably for its unique mix of genres: historical, thriller, comedy, tragedy. And it is a brilliant movie about ethics.

The picture is not adapted from an pre-existing book: Graham Greene was tasked to write the screenplay; in order to have a fully consistent plot, he wrote a novel that he immediately adapted for the screen. As Greene modestly admitted in the preface he wrote afterwards: "The film in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story." The book and the movie plots are very similar, although there are a few significant variances, for instance the novel is narrated by the Major and ends differently (on the latter, more below).


"The Third Man" starts as a historical account of post-war Vienna. The opening speech portrays the chaos in Europe. The plot revolves around black market, some relatively harmless (clothes, watches, identity papers, etc.), some deadly: penicillin, which is historically accurate. Throughout the film, we see different parts of Vienna, once a splendour of culture and history, partly destroyed as many major cities were. Some scenes are tragic, notably the one in the children's hospital.

Rapidly, the movie evolves into a thriller. Was Harry victim of an accident or a murder? Who was the third man? This mystery remains unsolved, although it could be Harry himself. Then the porter is also murdered and Holly closely escapes assassination. There are three chases (Holly and Anna, Holly, Harry).

The comical elements are continuously present, except at the end. Holly is a small-time writer of ridiculous novels, getting drunk, attracting trouble and failing with women. The excellent score adds a sarcastic tone to the whole story. (However, in my opinion the music is sometimes too present and partly spoils scenes that would have been better off silent. Also this reduces the impact of music when needed.)

The combination of these styles is easy but efficient. One example: when the military are tracking Harry… a balloon-seller barges in! Another: Holly is brutally driven by a taxi to an unknown destination and thinks he will be killed (thriller). But he is actually dropped at a conference… that is a disaster (comedy). However two killers show up so he has to run (thriller)… and gets bitten by a parrot (comedy).

Above all these elements, the motif about good versus evil is dominant. We see a shattered world that has lost its ethics. Some cynically take advantage, some stick to their values: Holly and Harry, once friends, are antagonists. But is it so simple? Holly is on the good side, yet because of his blunders the porter and the Sergeant get killed. The Major blackmails Anna to get information (no trifle matter: she could get deported by the Soviets). Anna loves Harry regardless. She says: "He is part of me." In this upside-down society, references are blurred: the porter points up to designate hell and down for paradise; Anna tells the Major "You have everything the wrong way around"; she sometimes calls Holly "Harry"; a key scene happens in the Ferris wheel where the world turns around; the sewer with its foul smell ends up in the romantic "blue Danube" as the Sergeant point out.

And the main villain is seducing. At first mysterious (he only progressively appears after an hour), he turns out to be extremely intelligent. His speech in the wheel is at the same time ignominious and rhetorically impressive. It is not easy to answer the question: why do we stay moral? Orson Welles is outstanding in this role: his performance is so powerful we think he appears on screen longer than an actual cumulated five minutes. On top of being a great director, he was a great actor.

Visually, the historical and moral instability is expressed by frequent darkness, shadows and inclined shots, where we constantly feel buildings and characters are going to fall. (In my opinion, these shots are somewhat too systematic, even though they make their point.) We are lost like Holly. Many dialogues are in German without subtitles.

Eventually, the movie rightfully ends in the sewer. Aesthetically stunning, this sequence is symbolic in different ways. The underground is where villains escape the law by crossing borders: it represents the evil, underlying part of this confused society. When everybody but Anna goes down there, they want to extirpate evil from its roots. Also, when Harry is looking for a way out, voices emerge from the dark tunnels that look like funerary steles: it is as if he guiltily heard the people he murdered talking to him. Last, the sewer feels anthropomorphic: complex, dark, liquid, noisy, with different levels and small tubes. Hence symbolically characters dive inside their subconscious to be confronted to their evil part: Holly faces Harry for the last time. Their gazes are similarly intense. Harry nods to Holly, a sign of agreement and/or understanding.

This famous climatic sequence is followed by one of the greatest closing shots of cinema history. After the funeral, Holly waits for Anna. The image is deep, in the axis of the road. Leaves are falling. Music is playing softly. Anna is a small figure that progressively grows bigger. Slowly, she just walks past Holly without a look and moves out of the frame. He is left alone. (It constitutes an important difference with the novel, which ends happily: Holly and Anna walk together holding arms. But Carol Reed thankfully imposed his ending.)

It is a dazzling shot, slow and melancholic, crowning an uneven yet compelling movie. Anna despises Holly for his law-abiding betrayal. It is one of the dramas about life: we sometimes prefer charismatic bastards to honest fools, and love is blind.
Kept my interest all the way.
A writer travels to post war Vienna to meet an old friend but finds out he's too late.

Starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles and Alida Valli.

Written by Graham Greene.

Directed by Carol Reed.

It's about time I watched another old movie so I couldn't resist this when I saw it on the TV listings.

I like it. It's a good twisty story that kept my interest all the way. The acting is good and the whole thing is pretty artistic and stylish. It's pretty dated but once I got into it it didn't really matter. It's was probably well ahead of it's time considering it came out in 1949 and I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't contain any melodramatic romantic mush. It was all about the story. The mystery.

I'm sure I would have loved this if I had been around at the time and watching it for the first time I was transported back in time and I felt like I was there. Oh and I love the background music, pretty quirky stuff.


Another overrated "masterpiece"
I've always thought "The Third Man" (**1/2 out of ****) one of the most overrated movies I've ever seen 4 or 5 times. Setting aside the admittedly dazzling photography and editing, we have a plot that's as difficult to follow and riddled with holes and loose ends as the one for "The Big Sleep." If we assume that Harry Lime is the "third man" who drove the truck that killed the medical orderly that was informing on him to the police (in fact, this is never made clear), wouldn't it have been a simple matter for the authorities (or anyone else) to identify the body and discover that it was not Harry Lime? Didn't the police interview the driver of the truck? How could Lime and his cohorts have possibly gotten away with the faking of his death when he was the most notorious and sought after racketeer in Vienna? The pretext for Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) being in the city at all is awfully weak. (The narration mentions a vague "some sort of a job.") Why would Harry want a friend from America that he hasn't seen for 10 years to come to Vienna to write about his operations? The less publicity the better it would seem to me. It's also extremely ambiguous whether or not his mistress (Alida Valli) knew that Harry was dead. The first time that Martins sees Lime he's lingering outside her apartment house as if waiting to go in, and then she does everything she can to make sure that Harry eludes the authorities. In fact, her obtuse behavior throughout the film is baffling. (I'm inclined to believe that she was in on the whole deception.) Perhaps Carol Reed and co. needed audacious cinematic razzle-dazzle and oblique dialogue to cover up the fact that their story makes minimal sense. And that jangling zither music! Time and again it intrudes upon scenes that were meant to evoke tension and atmosphere and dissipates both. After the 4th or 5th repetition of the "Third Man Theme", I was ready to turn on the "mute" button! (These comments are based on the original 104 minute version.)
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