Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Third Man”


film noir [film nwahr]


1) A motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism and despair.

[Origin 1955-1960, French, literally: black film]


“The Third Man” is set in Vienna, in the aftermath of WWII.

The film was shot on location there, and the recovery is still evident. Rubble and wreckage are often present, as are scaffolding and repair efforts. The city is policed by multi-national security forces. The locals suspicious and untrusting.

It’s a destabilized world.

Enter Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). He’s an author of pulp novels who’s a bit down on his luck. He’s been offered a job by his college friend, Harry Lime. When he arrives in Vienna, however, he discovers his friend Lime is dead. He was struck by an automobile and killed just prior to Martins’ arrival. While attending Lime’s funeral, he is shocked yet again. He’s informed that Lime was an unscrupulous war profiteer. A notorious black market racketeer.

Things don’t add up for Martins, however. Not only is he having trouble believing Lime was a racketeer, the facts surrounding his death don’t fit together. He is told at one point that two men carried Lime’s body from the street, then later, that there was a third man. Martins begins to probe the events. He suspects Harry Lime may have been murdered.

Especially when the witness who informed him of the third man is killed.

During the course of his investigation, Martins develops feelings for Lime’s girlfriend, Anna. “The Third Man”‘s femme fatale, the beautiful Anna Schmidt is bereft over the loss of Lime. Lime had provided her with forged documents in order to avoid expatriation by the Russians. The authorities have confiscated them now, however, and her future is uncertain. Yet Martins can’t help but fall for her.

Martins fails to close in on the elusive third man, but he does learn more about Lime. Apparently, Lime was making a profit on counterfeit penicillin. He was part of an operation which would steal from military medical supplies, water the medicine down, and resell the now less effective medicine on the black market. Lime has blood on his hands.

Disillusioned with his friend, unable to connect with the woman he’s falling for, and unable to make any headway into his investigation, Martins gets drunk and ponders leaving the country.

It’s then the film plays its trump card.

Harry Lime is not dead at all.

In legendary movie moment, a light suddenly turned on from a window above illuminates a man hiding in the shadow of a doorway. It’s Harry Lime. His death was faked.

Now that he’s revealed himself to Martins, Lime also reveals his motivations. In an infamous scene, Martins and Lime ride a ferris wheel and discuss his crimes.

It’s a chilling scene. The smug, cold-blooded Lime espouses his self centered world view, demonstrating no remorse whatsoever for his victims… Instead, he shows a callous disregard for human life, even boasting that his profits came without income tax. He alternately threatens and attempts to bribe Martins to join him.

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Victory is not Lime’s to be had, however. Now that the authorities know he’s alive, they’re in pursuit of him again. Martins, still with feelings for Anna, cuts a deal saving her from being brought back to Russia. In return, he has to set up Lime. She refuses to go, protective of Lime to the last, but the snare set by Martins still works.

What follows is the third major scene of screen legend in “The Third Man” – the chase through the sewers of Vienna. The military forces storm the underground catacombs as Lime attempts to find his way out without being apprehended. Echoes bounce off the walls, rats scurry about, water rushes through the subterranean sloughs of the city. Harry Lime doesn’t know which way to turn, running blindly, turned and twisted in a labyrinth of his own creation.

He is eventually shot, and the movie which opens with his fake funeral ends with his real one.

Screenwriter and novelist Graham Greene based the character of Harry Lime on an actual profiteer. It’s rumored that Martins was based on himself. Reed wanted Martins to be portrayed by Cary Grant, but producer David O. Selznick had Joseph Cotten under contract.

Reed knew that he needed an actor whose very appearance would have impact. He wanted Orson Welles. Welles had to be convinced to take the role, however. As written, he felt the part too small for him. So Greene beefed up the ferris wheel scene. Welles ad-libbed anyways, adding the infamous cuckoo clock line. He also refused to work in the sewers, requiring sets to be built in London. Numerous doubles had to be used for him in the sewer chase scenes.

It’s reported that Carol Reed got hooked on Dexedrine (speed) during the filming, sleeping as little as two hours a night. The price you pay for a work of genius, I suppose.

The movie is uniquely scored. Reed was determined to avoid an orchestrated score, and during production, came across a zither player in a wine-garden named Anton Karas. Karas was allowed to compose the score, and the result is a film that sounds like no other. At times bouncy, at others, melancholy, the zither is the only instrument used in the film.

The film is also noted for its extensive use of “Dutch Angles” – the technique where the camera is tilted during filming and the resultant image onscreen in the movie appears tilted. Though not the first film to use the technique, Reed uses them so prominently that the film is listed on the Wikipedia entry for what a Dutch angle IS. He also uses lighting to create shadows that seem miles long… as if the city of Vienna at night were twisted out of shape.

The off kilter perspective, the consistent darkness, the elongated shadows, the unusual score… it all keeps the viewer off balance and unsettled, supporting the dark and twisted scenario unfolding. A war torn world, a man who lines his pockets at the cost of children’s lives, and a woman who won’t stop loving him regardless.

The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1949, and the Palme d’Or for Reed. In the U.S., Reed was nominated for Best Director, but didn’t win. “The Third Man” was also nominated for Best Editing, and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, for which it won its lone Oscar. The film is #1 on the BFI 100 (The British Film Institute) and #57 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Films.. Harry Lime checks in at #37 on the villains side of their 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains and the film is #5 on their Top 10 Mysteries.

It’s a film held in high esteem by film aficionados for good reason. It’s now over fifty years old, but still as gripping and disturbing as ever. It features one of Orson Welles most famed characters, and legendary directing by Sir Carol Reed that firmly set a benchmark in the genre of film noir.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.


28 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Third Man”

    • Thanks Nostra.

      Yeah, it’s amazing how great directing can hold up across the decades… This movie is still potent today. Timeless story, too. People will never stop being greedy… even if its at the expense of others.

  1. I feel very ashamed at myself for never getting around to watching this, even more so since I taped it off TCM about a year ago (along with many other films I haven’t got to yet). Guess I really need to push this up and watch it. Great write up, I’ll definitely be watching it in the next day or two.

    • 😀 I hope you enjoy it as much as I do… And it’s definitely a film to scratch off of your “must see” list.

      Swing back and tell us what you thought of it when you do check it out AB!! 😀

    • Not sure if I’d love it independent of the movie, but it definitely gives the movie an unmistakeable, recognizable sound all its own.

      Seeing as I love the flick though, it carries through to the soundtrack as well…

  2. True story: The day I was supposed to see this in film history class I was so hung over I slept through a 2PM class, and got resoundingly balled out for it by my prof. Ever since I’ve always had a twinge of guilt about it and have avoided watching it. Obviously its a glaring hole in my film education, but I still have never seen it. Your excellent review makes me think I should remedy that.

  3. On my “Top Ten” list. I’m amazed how many commenters haven’t seen this. Turned off by “black and white” maybe? They are in for some “shock and awe” when they do. Harry Lime’s speech on the Ferris Wheel gave me goosebumps. The “Third Man Theme” is iconic! Used in dozens of commercials, Tv shows and other movies. Instantly recognizable! Shows how thrilling a black and white flik can be! Superb Review!

    • Nah. I don’t think it’s that (the black and white) as much as we have a diverse community here… Happily that means a lot of casual film goers! When that’s the case, they often don’t go back to seek out the classics unless steered towards them.

      But posts like this and comments like that help! So thanks for your support… 😀 I agree with you, totally.

      I’d love to hear the rest of your top ten… Email me, perhaps?

      • I wonder how Carol Reed felt having the great Orsen Welles in his film? What’s the modern day equivalent? WE’ll discuss “top tens” at length at a future date. Wouldn’t want to influence MTESS!

  4. I really enjoy The Third Man. I’ve only seen it once, so a rewatch is coming soon. I understand how the film is so beloved and I’m glad to see more people enjoying it. It is a must watch. Awesome Write-up.

    • Thanks Max! Love to hear the kind words…

      A rewatch will do you right. 😉 I know I fully enjoyed mine yesterday as I was doing this writeup. It’s just such a great film… you’re going to wind up amdiring it all over again. That’s my bet.

  5. Awesome post, man. The Third Man is an incredible movie, and it is a VERY worthy entry to your series. The movie’s closing shot is one of my all-time favorites…

    • Just total despair, isolation, loneliness.

      I didnt even think about that road until last night. The trees are all messed up man. They’re all cut and strange. What a great setting to frame that final moment that road makes for. That’s awesome location scouting right there man.

      Nice point. I think its great too.

    • LOL. I redeemed myself a bit bro? I haven’t been fairing well in K2 court of late. 😀

      Yeah. Lim is just such an incredible character. Welles really only has one scene with dialogue, but good god does he nail it. Makes his whole character legendary…

  6. I read your spoiler warning and looked at the pictures. I will have to put this on my list that’s not real but should be real of films I should see.

  7. Pingback: The Third Man | The Soul of the Plot

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