Classic Review – The Third Man (1949)

Stunning cinematography in The Third Man

The Third Man

Directed by Carol Reed

Written Graham Greene

Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Wells, Trevor Howard

Review by Jordan

“We should have dug deeper than a grave”

What is the exact moment, when Carol Reed’s post-war noir subtly announced itself as film that would make history? One that would shape future denouements, instruct cinematographers and dare film-makers to experiment with expectations? A precise instance would be expected in a film with a legacy as rich as this.

Perhaps there is one, but nearly 70 years on it’s almost tangible sense of secrecy, with unexpected ramifications, resists detailed discussion in favour of a shroud of mystery.

Introduced with an enigmatic Anton Karas zither score, which resonates throughout, The Third Man likewise is never quite what you’d expect, casting a new perception over its stars and travelling a road to an ending that creeps up as the clouds and weather gather. There are no twists, but developments, as the idea of digging deeper than a grave to properly bury a dead man hovers over a web of characters brought together in post-war Vienna.

Harry Lime is dead. The victim of a motiveless traffic accident. But to his old American friend Holly Martins, this death appears the outcome of a sordid web of intrigue, his fanciful imagination and irritable questioning catching the ire of Maj. Calloway. This amateur-journalistic personality of Martins explains his arguably unsuccessful career as an author of pulp westerns, and with dames often serving as a driver to their male counterparts, so too does it explain his immediate fascination with Lime’s former love interest Anna Schmidt. Divided into often uncooperative factions following the defeat of Germany, solving a mystery that may not even exist in the volatile state of Vienna (the black market trade its worst kept secret) is a signalled call for deception, danger and a rotation of allegiances.

Orson Wells is a cinematic figure whose reputation precedes his work, with a name synonymous with film itself. There have been few like him. It’s no small statement then that Harry Lime can be described his most captivating creation; his knowing expressions, rapscallion disposition and well-harnessed weapons of charm engineering his surroundings, and layering Carol Reed’s esteemed effort. Joseph Cotton too enhances the film, playing a riff on the more established noir protagonist, with his thinly veiled confusion replacing the gun and fedora normally presented. His performance is matched by the beautiful Alida Valli, her Anna the victim of both human fascination and inhuman politics, with the incomparable Trevor Howard rounding out an ensemble of four.

Ending with scenes of stunning black and white cinematography in a labyrinthine cities sewers is entirely fitting for The Third Man, a film often referenced as one of the finest ever made, with no aspect or shadowy reflection left unshaped in service of great mystery and subsequent revealing.

5 Ferris Wheels out of 5

3 responses to “Classic Review – The Third Man (1949)

  1. Just re-watched this recently. This film is just about perfect and man, that chase scene through the sewers is incredible. Some of the best cinematography I have ever seen and Welles was outstanding, even with pretty limited screen time.

  2. Hear; hear. You can’t say enough about Orson Wells–he is/was a cinematic genius and giant. Joseph Cotton is often under appreciated. He had a more contemporary style of acting that translates better with today’s cinema than with the more pronounced style of his time.
    The film’s soundtrack is great too. A integral accompaniment to an over all masterpiece.

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