The Third Man (1949) is a mystery thriller directed by Carol Reed based on a screenplay by an acclaimed writer Graham Green. The film is considered to be one of the most important of the film-noir genre, which laid the foundations of its visual style. The film's plot develops around Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten), a detective writer, who comes to Vienna invited by his old friend Harry Lime (played by charismatic Orson Welles) just to find him recently deceased. Martens gets himself involved in the investigation of Lime's death, discovers the dark side of his friend's life, which comprises theft, contraband of medicine, and consequently - murder. During the searching for mysterious titular "third man" who supposedly was present at the moment of Lime's death, Martens gets acquainted with various characters, including the mandatory femme fatale Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). As a result of his investigation, Martens finds out that Lime fabricated his death. The film culminates with the iconic sewer chase scene and Lime's death. The plot of the film is rather simplistic and is heavily inspired by Eric Ambler’s detective novel The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), from which it borrows some of the important elements of the plot, including the protagonist being a detective writer and the main villain fabricating his death. However, the film stands out among other genre films of the period due to its setting, distinctive visuals, and political connotations. The film takes place in post-war Vienna which is divided into four zones, controlled by American, British, French, and Soviet armies. This division creates a fertile ground for various illegal activities, including racketeering, forgery, and contraband of the most valuable resources. Another important feature this division brings to the film is cultural and linguistic barrier between characters. The director shows how even after the end of the war Europe is still struggling from its consequences, destroyed by bombings and torn apart by ideological differences between former allies. As during his investigation Martens encounters representatives of all the parties, this adds another dimension to the film’s conflict. Splitting of the city also creates a jurisdictional problem as law enforcers from one part of the city struggle to capture a criminal hiding in another part. As The Third Man was filmed on actual locations, the director utilized the architecture of the old European city to full extent. He shows the interiors of the buildings from unusual low angles, demonstrating the staircases of the apartment buildings and the ceiling of the opera theater in all their glory. Some shots in the film deliberately dwell on the interiors. There is an impressive panorama shot of the city which shows demolished buildings and constructions spared by war. Film's final confrontation is its most visually impressive, atmospheric and intense scene. It starts on the dramatically lit night streets of Vienna and descends into the sewer labyrinth. The characters are shown as shadows and dark silhouettes. Most of the shots in this scene utilize deep composition, created by sewer tunnels and architecture of the city streets. The scene has no background music, which helps to raise the tension. The scene is so thrilling that the audience starts to root for Lime in his attempts to escape, despite him being the film’s antagonist. As Lime is hunted in the sewers, he turns from cold-blooded and self-confident villain to a desperate victim. This transformation is achieved by the acting talent of Orson Welles and director's artistic choices. In one of the final shots in this sequence we see Lime's hand reaching through the bars of the manhole. The shot is beautifully constructed, it shows how close and far from freedom Lime is at this moment of his life. As he is cornered by Martens, the final confrontation takes place off-screen, with a single gunshot sound. Light and shadows, combined with the gothic architecture of the old city streets, and Welles's distinguished acting make this scene one of the most impressive and thrilling scenes in film history. Another distinctive feature of the film is its soundtrack, a playful zither tune created and performed by Anton Karas. Unlike most of the cinematic scores in the films of the time, Karas's tune does not serve to highlight the dramatic events of the film. The melody slows its pace in more somber moments (for example, during Lime's funeral) and becomes more intense in the chase scenes. Despite its dark dominating elements, the film is not devoid of humor, which also is rooted in cultural contradiction. In a scene when Welles is having a lecture, the guests in the audience ask him about modernist literature movements, not knowing that he is a pulp-fiction writer.
The Third Man is a detective story, with noir elements presented mostly in its visual execution. Ideologically it is a product of its time. Like many films and novels of the post-war period, it shows Europe torn by the war and struggling with its cultural, social, and economic consequences. The director takes a simple detective story and focuses on charismatic characters, representing different sides of the conflict. The city of Vienna is another important element of the film. Reed portraits it as a bearer of cultural heritage and tradition of old Europe, despite the horrors of war. Visually the film shows influences of German expressionist film movement: its shots have broken geometrical forms of the city architecture in the background, low key lighting, and usage of Dutch angles of the camera. The film was also experimental in its use of camera angles, art-directing, and musical score; and it is rightfully considered a classic of both noir genre and world cinema.
The Third Man. Dir. Carol Reed. Perf. Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. London Films, 1949. Film.