The Third Man (1949)

The uppity tune is struck upon the zither, the names of Carol Reed, Graham Greene, Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles appear one by one as the melody slowly builds and for the next hour and forty minutes, I’m once again in the grip of The Third Man, one of the finest of noirs, one of the most well written films and one of my all-time favorites. 

Even though I know what Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) doesn’t at the beginning of the film as he arrives in Vienna only to discover his good friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is dead, I still find myself enraptured in the story. I know why the friends of Lime throw off Holly’s persistent questions when he discovers that there was a third man at the site of Harry’s death, a third man no one will talk about.

After seeing this film a handful of times, I’m still amazed at how well written this film is. Graham Greene’s screenplay is one of the finest to make it to celluloid. Many noirs suffer from stories that are too straightforward (The Asphalt Jungle) or too convoluted (The Big Sleep). The Third Man is the perfect balance, giving us just enough twists to keep us constantly waiting for the next crumb and never so confusing as to leave us in confusion.

The characters also grow richer upon each viewing. Holly Martins is an unlikely noir protagonist. Yes, he’s a bit of a dupe, like most noir heroes, but he lacks the cool and the smarts of a Same Spade or the strength and the brawn of a Dix Handley. He’s a hack writer, who’s a bit too arrogant and naïve for his own good, a bit too much of a boy scout but without any of the survival instincts, investigating Lime’s death like it’s one of his trashy Westerns: clear cut and simple.

While the first hour gives the film a lot of great setup, it’s the last forty minutes that makes this film one of the greats. It’s here that many of the famous and iconic scenes appear and while they are great to watch, listening to them is even better as the film contains one of the all-time great monologues and also is peppered with some fantastic conversations.

It’s also the point where the audience is faced with the true state of things in Vienna, where the dirt, grime and grunge appears. In retrospect, it’s easy to forget that the film took place only a few years after the end of World War II and Vienna lives in the shadow of that war, split into sectors, divided and some still in rubbles.

One could make the argument that the film’s only major failure is in conveying the setting of the film. There are a few scenes where it tries, but they lack the raw emotional punch of a place that was ravaged by the war and now languishes in hunger, sickness and poverty because of it. However, it could also be seen as another aspect of Holly’s naivety, that even though he enters such a torn city, he’s unable to recognize what is in front of him.

This qualm aside, one would be hard pressed to find many films that are as taught, witty and well-structured as The Third Man. There are sequences in this film that truly elevated to a level of greatness, sequences that are still provoking and thoughtful today. But above all that, it’s still a fun, entertaining film that never lulls or lets up from the mystery, intrigue and thrills of Holly Martin’s quest for the third man.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • Great review James.

    I’m happy you got your wish for Movie of the month.