#46 - The Third Man (Carol Reed)

note: article contains spoilers 

Curiousity Kills The Cat

“The Third Man” is easily one of the greatest classics of Noir cinema and I find it frightening how hard it is to enjoy this film today in its full potency. It is not because the film is bad or because it has aged terribly, not at all! This is an exceptional film that has aged with absolute grace. The reason for why it is hard to experience this film as it was intended is because… Well because of the cover of the very DVD that I am holding in my hand right now, since it’s featuring Orson Welles’ bulldoggish visage and it names him in the role of Harry Lime.

The film is spoiled for the viewer to a certain degree even before he sees a single frame of it. It is like if the cover of “The Sixth Sense” proudly presented Bruce Willis in a ghostly form, or more aptly if the cover for “The Usual Suspects” had “Starring Kevin Spacey as Keyser Soze” written on it. Yes this is just horrible marketing, but the issue goes even deeper as this is a very well known film and the twist of the film is probably the most widely known one in cinema.

So in a way it is impossible to view it completely untarnished, especially for a film buff. The first time I saw the film I anticipated Orson Welles through the first two thirds of the film, which pretty much spoiled the mystery that was building up to the fantastic reveal.

And, of course, Welles gives one of his best and most memorable performances in the film and the wait has very much paid off, but overall the film fell flat for me because I did not really enjoy anything that came before Welles because of said anticipation. And in my case I and Welles are also to blame; Welles because he left such monumental imprints on cinema itself and me for admiring the man so much. In a lot of ways it is the same experience I had with “Straw Dogs”, an experience tarnished by faulty expectations.

But thankfully I returned to the film last night, after the DVD has been gathering dust on one of my shelves for years, and I was captivated by the plot, the performances and the beauty of the film. It is still a very far cry from that perfect movie-viewing experience where you go in to the film knowing almost nothing about it, from which a film like this profits the most. Anyway I guess I had to get that out of my system, now on to the film itself.

The plot of the film follows a hack writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who is summoned to Vienna by his old friend Harry Lime that promised him a well paying job. But soon upon his arrival he finds out that Harry has been killed in an automobile accident. After Lime’s funeral he starts unraveling a mystery around the death of his friend and suspects that Harry has been actually murdered. And at the center of this mystery is the identity of the third man who witnessed Lime’s death.

Of course the reveal of the third man’s identity is the great twist of the film, as the third man is in fact Harry Lime who staged his own murder as a cover up for his horrible crimes. And this reveal is probably one of the most well known sequences in cinema, as we see Orson Welles’ face for the first time in the film, in a scene of absolutely amazing writing, acting, cinematography and editing. It’s that magic cinematic moment that very few films reach, the moment when all the elements and the buildup of the film converge in to a single point and are perfectly executed on a technical level as well.

But even beyond this single sequence “The Third Man” is a masterful film in every possible way. The plot is intriguing and wonderfully deceptive, and post war Vienna is such a great backdrop for this story that I can’t imagine it taking place anywhere else. A big part of this is of course the chaotic state of the city at the time as well as the language barrier between our American protagonist and the denizens of Vienna and the film’s use of these devices for both intrigue and humor. But most of all because the city’s ragged state and wonderful alleys and underground tunnels play perfectly in to the noir aesthetic of the film.  

This aesthetic is primarily brought out through the gorgeous black and white cinematography of the film that stylizes every scene with wonderful framing and contrasted lighting. It completely goes for visual impact and it is quite effective in that regard. The same goes for the acting in the film as all the principal actors have a clam and brooding note to them which is now considered the hallmark of a noir film.

“The Third Man” is also very much known for its dutch angles and how they’re used to mirror the anxiety of the characters, as well as the amazing zither score that is often juxtaposed with the events on the screen.  All this contributes to a fantastic and thick atmosphere of the film, and indeed the play with the tone of the scenes is what makes “The Third Man” such a great film.

In conclusion a good thing to mention is the wonderful leading trio of the film: Alida Valli, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. They’re all legends of their craft at this point and “The Third Man” is a good example why. So all I have left to say about my second viewing of “The Third Man” is that it absolutely captivated me in to the mystery surrounding Harry Lime, despite the fact that the cat was very much out of the bag before said mystery even started.


Joseph Cotten - Holly Martins
Alida Valli -  Anna Schmidt
Orson Welles - Harry Lime
Trevor Howard - Maj Calloway
Bernard Lee - Sgt. Paine

The Third Man on IMDb

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