Not long after World War Two, an unemployed fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). On arriving in Austria, Martins learns that Lime is dead. At Lime’s funeral, Martins sees a woman, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who he soon finds out is Harry’s lover. Vienna is a city in sectors, where a shortage of supplies has given birth to a growing black market. Finding out that Lime was killed in a traffic accident, Martins become author turned detective. And from talking to Lime’s acquaintances, Martins soon discovers that many of the tales don’t add up and is now determined to to find out what happened to his friend.
On the case, Holly runs into many of these old school crime tropes, tropes from today’s point of view anyhow. From Agatha Christie to John LeCarré, The Third Man has them all. Martins gets contradicting testimonies and the constant presence of Anna (Valli) invites a raised eyebrow. Who is she? What’s her part in this story? Does she know more than she’s telling? The storyline has this writer thrust into an environment that he knows nothing about surrounded by sharks, corruption and dodgy individuals. Such individuals like Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) perplexed me, as his motives baffle me more than the case of Harry Lime and how dead men can now walk among us.
The story moves steadily, slowly slithering through the serpentine woods of Vienna, a city of corruption and that typical “trust no one” mentality. “I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm” says narrator (Cotten). Vienna after the war (in this film) is the complete opposite. Deadly and deceitful. “Everybody ought to be careful in a city like this” says someone to Martins as an intended threat. Soon, in the next moment, a man who was ready to talk to Holly is murdered. The dialogue in this film is fantastic and this carries the story, and the bits in German are great. Not to forget to mention Lime’s great ‘Cuckoo Clock’ Speech.
I’m a sucker for film noir. From Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown, the film’s cinematography is the best thing about it. Robert Krasker. What a genius. The camera’s movement is very minimalist. This might be to draw the audience’s gaze to the metrics of each frame. The last shot with Anna walking down the road is still indelibly etched in my mind. Then there’s the fantastic lighting, especially in the outdoor scenes at night, like when we first set eyes on the thought-dead Harry Lime (Welles). When we first see him it’s comedic and chilling at the same time. It’s really quite strange and the sewer scenes reminded of the cubist movement of the early twentieth century.
From the acting performances to the storyline to the musical score and editing, The Third Man is certainly one of the greatest films of all time and it doesn’t really need to be explained why it’s on the AFI Top 100.