The Third Man

The Third Man

“Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”

The Third Man is a difficult movie to sum up. Directed by Carol Reed (Oliver!, The Fallen Idol) and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles, this film noir is both suspenseful and whimsical, and seems to turn many Hollywood formulas on their heads. I’ll admit, there are a lot of movies that do suspense better, and a lot that do whimsy better, and even a few that do both just as well. But there’s something about this movie that’s just somehow more charming than others in the same league. It took me a while to reach this conclusion—I actually wasn’t all that impressed during the first half of the movie—but on reflection, I’m finding that I love this movie.

The movie opens with Holly Martins, a famous pulp Western novelist, showing up in Vienna to visit Harry Lime, an old friend from college. He quickly encounters a problem: Harry Lime is dead. Vienna is still recovering from the war—the government is fragmented and corruption is rampant. Holly starts investigating because the police consider it a closed case, and finds some inconsistencies in the stories, but nobody is willing to talk much about the murder. There are some twists along the way, along with the best anti-Hollywood ending that I’ve ever seen.

You and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make any heroes, outside of your stories.

The cinematography and art direction in this movie are phenomenal. The film noir style is at its peak here, visually, and some of the shots are years ahead of their time. The soundtrack is perhaps the most interesting choice. Most of the music is old-time zither music from a quaint European bar. At first, it seemed out of place in a film noir; but I quickly came to appreciate it. It’s light without being too cheery, and it really helped to set a light-but-not-too-light mood.

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Orson Welles acts in the most Orson Welles movie not directed by Orson Welles.

Though the movie is funny and even light-hearted at times, it has a very serious message. When Holly, an American, arrives in Vienna, he’s rather optimistic and a bit naive, just like his pulp novels of heroes and villains and happy endings. This is in stark contrast to the story he uncovers in Europe. Corruption exists not because of evil men but because of the massive upheaval of the recent war. This is very visible in the scenery: we see the beautiful classic architecture marred by craters and rubble. After the war, America was able to quickly return to life as usual, but the effects of the war were felt much stronger in Europe, which was still struggling in 1949 when this movie was released. The shock of that realization is so jarring that Holly nearly quits and goes home in the middle of the movie. In the end, it’s his conscience that keeps him going.

The Third Man is a fun mystery with some depth, and it really captures the essence of film noir visual style. It was a favorite of director Martin Scorsese, and he even wrote a thesis on the movie while in film school. It really throws the Hollywood formula out the window, actually getting darker all the way up until the end, which may be a bit jolting for viewers who want to see good cleanly triumph over evil. But this film is still a masterpiece that’s worth seeing today.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:48
Director: Carol Reed
Year: 1949
Genres: film noir, mystery
Rating: NR

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