Film Review: The Third Man

Carol Reed’s 1949 classic is impressive on the big screen, just as it must have been over sixty years ago. The Third Man is quintessential film noir; thoroughly recommended for fans of the genre as well as cinema itself.

Writer Holly Martins arrives in Vienna, having been invited by his old friend Harry Lime. Martins is shocked to find out Lime was recently killed in a car accident. When Martins begins to ask questions, he notices inconsistencies in the accounts of Lime’s friends…

The Third Man ticks all the boxes of a 1940s film noir. With its themes of crime, betrayal and mystery, it is exemplary of that period. Reed’s film goes beyond this however, offering a feature that is difficult to fault. The various aspects of the film blend together incredibly well. The Third Man has been so critically acclaimed undoubtedly due to the fact that it is such a compelling film.

Reed’s film is drenched in intrigue. There is mystery from the outset, concerning both the incident involving Harry Lime and the character himself. Writer Graeme Greene has carefully constructed the story so that the reveal is slow but effective. Seemingly, for each reveal another mystery is put in its place. Thus, the film operates to keep the audience on their toes, refusing to give away too much too soon.

The characters in The Third Man are compelling. The audience are strictly aligned with protagonist Holly Martins, entering the action alongside him. The ambiguity of proceedings is shared by Martins, who struggles to find the truth in the tangled web of lies and intrigue. Most indelible, however, is the mysterious Harry Lime. Pronounced dead at the beginning of the film, his presence casts a dark shadow over the duration in spite of his absence.

Robert Krasker’s photography is fantastic. Krasker captures  a sense of eeriness in the images, creating a look that is characteristically gothic. The lighting is striking, with the looming shadows evocative of earlier German Expressionism. This is particularly effective in one of the film’s memorable scenes, where a shadow dramatically engulfs the exterior of a building. The score is also great; Anton Karas’ theme has become one of the most recognisable in cinematic history.

Joseph Cotten is perfectly cast as Holly Martins. The frequent Welles collaborator is a beacon of morality in a corrupt world. Orson Welles is beguiling as ever in his critical role. Alida Valli captures the ambiguity of Anna succinctly. There are several noirs that can be classified as brilliant. The Third Man certainly ranks in this category.

The Third Man was shown at the British Film Institute as part of the Screen Epiphanies season. It was introduced by Michael Winner.