Retro Review: The Third Man (1949)

This British thriller is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. I wonder if there is a film fan out there who has never seen it? If so, you are missing a treat indeed.

Directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene, and cinematography by Robert Krasker, this black and white film is simply stunning, in every way imaginable. And that’s even before you consider the cast, led by Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, and Alida Valli. Add an amazingly memorable soundtrack from Anton Karas, and ‘masterpiece’ is the word that springs to mind.

The setting is post-war Vienna, and location filming puts us right into the heart of that European city. Like Berlin at the time, the city is divided into zones controlled by each of the victorious allies, and Black Market dealing and racketeering is rife. American fiction writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives, searching for his friend Harry Lime (Welles) who has contacted him, offering a job. He is surprised and dismayed that his old friend has been killed in an accident, and goes to his funeral. There he encounters Lime’s girlfriend (Valli), and two British Military Policemen, (Howard and Lee) who tell him that Harry Lime was a notorious racketeer, and that he should go back to America.

After Holly presses for a formal investigation into Harry’s death, he is upset to learn that Lime was involved in the medical drugs racket, selling Penicillin stolen from hospitals in the city on the Black Market. He was also responsible for getting the drug diluted, to make more profits. As a result, the cure was ineffective, and many people had died. When he asks Harry’s girlfriend about this, she admits it is true, but confesses that she is still in love with him. One night on a shadowy city street, Holly spots someone watching him from a doorway, and is shocked to recognise Harry. He now knows that the death had been faked, and very soon the Military Police are pursuing Harry through the huge sewers under Vienna’s streets. Holly becomes involved in the chase, leading to the final confrontation with his former friend.

This film is simply sumptuous. Rarely have night scenes been so wonderfully rendered on celluloid. Perfect lighting casts amazing shadows across city streets, and the rippling waters in underground tunnels. The climax is exciting, period feel perfect, (it was filmed at the time such events were happening) and a marvellous script gives Welles some of his best lines ever. His ‘Cuckoo Clock’ monologue has gone down in the history of cinema, and rightly so. Every cast member feels just right for their roles, and there is nothing flashy or over stylistic about it. Unusual camera angles, taut direction from Reed, and the interjection of the soundtrack at just the right moments leave us with the feeling that we have just seen something perfect.
And we have.

I am a huge fan of Orson Welles, and no less so in this film. He takes a relatively small role, in terms of screen time, and makes it into what is undoubtedly the starring role of the film. And he does something else. He makes us root for a heartless villain, even though we know we shouldn’t.

It really is as good as it sounds. Superb.

52 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Third Man (1949)

  1. It’s been my favourite film ever since I saw it. That quote on the ferris wheel was one of my first ever line(s) of the day and has found its way into my work once or twice. There’s a memorable episode of Law and order too where it gets referenced and of course it inspired Vienna, from a musician who had never even been. And I’ve been on the prater wheel and took several photos. So amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love it as well. As you say, there is nothing amiss and it all works perfectly well. Pure magic. I love the music, the cinematography, the acting (and yes, I always have a soft spot for books and movies that feature writers in the story), and that monologue… One of the greatest… Perhaps great monologues in movies sounds like a series of blog posts… Thanks, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I must presume you don’t rate the film? So go and stand in the corner, and don’t come out until you say ‘sorry’. 🙂 You’re a photographer, so at the very least (the VERY LEAST) you must appreciate how well it is photographed? (Foaming at the mouth now, and considering going to bed early…)
      Sigh…and double sigh…
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pete, “The Third Man” still plays weekly in a movie theater in Vienna, as it has done since the film first came out – and my wife and I went to see it there! Great cinema, enhanced by seeing it in the city in which is was made!

    Liked by 1 person

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