The Third Man tells the story of the struggling novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) as he travels to postwar Vienna under an invite from his old buddy Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but when Holly arrives in Vienna he finds that Harry has died in an accident. Suspecting foul play almost immediately, Holly decides to stick around the shadowy Venice for a while longer to investigate his friend's alleged accident. It's not long before Holly meets the various factions that are vying for control of Vienna and the black market that has sprung up because of it. Holly soon meets Harry Lime's girlfriend, the beautiful Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and they begin to seek the truth out together. The 'truth' is always changing from person to person though, and it soon becomes apparent that there's a conspiracy at play and that Harry Lime may not have been who Holly thought he was.
I think it might help you appreciate The Third Man a bit more if you have at least a brief understanding of what the prevailing attitudes, moods and conditions were like in post-war Vienna at the time. It was a very... transitional time for Europe, as a whole and Vienna was caught in the middle of a very precarious power struggle between multiple government factions, and often found themselves in destitute situations with a severe lack of basic resources after World War 2 had practically ravaged the world.
Ostensibly The Third Man is about a man who comes to see his childhood friend, only to find out that's he's recently deceased, so it starts out as a basic mystery, yet, The Third Man really works on so many different levels. The Third Man is also a political, moral and ethical examination of post war Europe and its citizens. We see the beginnings of the cold war, the communist bloc and the communists, how Anna's heritage will dictate her place in the world, and so on. So there's a lot of political subtext and layers to The Third Man, and it's these layers that help elevate The Third Man from being just another suspenseful thriller, to a bona fide classic.
The real star of The Third Man is the lush cinematography. It's gorgeous, it's atmospheric and it's stylistically innovative. The cinematography in The Third Man was way ahead of its time, and all this was done in black and white over 75 years ago. War-torn Vienna has never looked so sharp, so crisp, so haunting and so beautifully expressive before. The framing of the shots, the unconventional angles that were used, and the use of lighting and shadows is exceptional.
Acting wise, Orson Welles was the real highlight for me, even though he's not in the The Third Man for very long, he's one memorable son of a bitch, especially his exchange on the Prater as we see how far morality can go off the rails in hard times. The pacing was a little off for me in places, it seemed to start off so brisk and wispy, but then it slowed down a lot in the middle until it really hit its stride in the last third, although it still dragged out a bit too much I thought. I loved the closing scene and all its implications, a visually powerful scene with a lot of ambiguity. Who says the good guys always get the girl? Who says the girl even wants the good guy? I suppose it's open to interpretation there, but it seemed quite bleak to me. For a movie that was made in 1949, The Third Man thoroughly deserves all its acclaim.
Written by - The Sentry - 21/04/2015