The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who has just arrived in Vienna. He is looking forward to seeing an old friend he hasn’t seen in years. Harry Lime is his name and unfortunately, he is dead. The film opens very casually with light music and the credits giving you a false sense of security going into the film. A great choice because the rest of the film will throw you off balance as a viewer. If you weren’t aware of the films plot beforehand, you might not know what you’re walking into. Holly Martins is very unaware what he’s walking into. He learns of his friends Harry Lime’s alleged accidental death and is given a lot of clues that all contradict each other. He is also a bit lost in translation because he doesn’t understand any German. He is lost in a foreign situation with almost no help and nothing to guide him. We don’t see Harry Lime but as we learn what happen to him, he becomes a very likable guy, a true protagonist to get behind. This won’t always be true but Graham Greene did a great job leaving everyone in the dark until we get further along our story.
A beautiful woman named Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), whose continued involvement in the story sparks skepticism, is one of the people who knew Lime in Vienna. She plays this suspicious character perfectly. She is as in the dark as the audience is and brings a different perspective to the protagonist we “go on the ride” with. Her performance can be haunting, see the end of the film, and she has to wrestle with a lot of emotions as the story reveals itself to be darker and darker as the film wears on. There is already nearly 100 years of talk about the performances in the film and it is all deserving.
The film looks and sounds extraordinary and won the Academy Award for cinematographer Robert Krasker, who covers the ruins of the city in black shadows and unsettling camera angles. The police chase through the Vienna sewers is a fantastic and iconic and fills the frame with as many interesting notes as possible. The scenes are edited very well and are extremely well paced along with the dialogue. The story moves seamlessly from one frame to the next and the story, although intentionally confusing because it is a murder mystery, it is easy to follow. Since we are all taking the point of view of Holly we are as confused as he is sometimes. The character is charming and obviously quite fearless and he doesn’t show the kind of against someone would have as an American in post war Europe with no money and no friends. The movie takes on the idea of the black market, and its effects on society after World War II, and we get a bit of a history lesson as well.
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgia’s, 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.”Harry Lime – Orson Welles
The Third Man is a noir thriller set in post-war Vienna that tells the tale of a few Americans seeking to renew a childhood friendship after growing up to be very different people in a foreign world. The film is about betrayal, the loss of innocence, and the real difficulty of making moral decisions. It is a slow moving mystery but the setting and characters keep the movie alive until we get to the major plot twist. Harry is alive and everything we were told. He is a ruthless black marketer not morally interested in the consequences of his actions.
Orson Welles, of course, steals the end of the film in mine and most everyone’s opinion. His stoic nature as he answers Holly’s question of “What’s going on?” makes you believe everything that you’ve been told. I felt as confused about what to do with Harry as Holly did in the tense scene above the fair. It is a very powerful scene and it shows how well Orson was suiting for entertaining. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Yes actually I would, and that’s why it ok for Lime to be sentenced to death at the end. Harry’s very sad nod to Holly as an affirmation to pull the trigger really brings the movie full circle. You can’t help be feel sympathy for Holly, for even though he did a great thing for Vienna, he lost a friend and didn’t get the girl. An all-time classic transcending genre go out and watch The Third Man.