The Third Man is undeniably one of the best and most highly acclaimed films of the ‘40s as well as being among the greatest British films ever produced (it is rated the third highest film from the UK in the nigh-definitive TSPDT 1,000 Greatest Films rankings). It benefits from an ideal confluence of writing, directing, acting, setting and cinematography. The film is routinely featured on internet lists discussing the best twist endings, the most iconic lines, most unique musical score and the most unforgettable camera shots. It is the rare film that is utterly perfect.
The Third Man is immediately transfixing, opening with Anton Karas’ haunting zither score and transporting the audience to a war-ravaged, still-occupied Vienna. It was a rare cinematic journey into the post-war ruins of a Europe that had spent most of the decade destroying itself; the rubble, the lawlessness, the panicked talk of various occupation zones and the sense of menace that Vienna lends to the atmosphere, compounded by that bewitching zither, are an excellent introduction to the film’s action.
The script was penned by Graham Greene, a legend of mid-century English literature. The plot is both engrossingly convoluted and oddly straightforward; it takes the viewer’s full attention to follow the various narrative strands and keep the details straight, but the plot machinations are always secondary and ultimately unimportant to the film overall. It’s the broad strokes that matter. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a popular pulp novelist invited to post-war Vienna by his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When Martins arrives, however, he discovers that Lime was recently killed crossing the street. Finding the details suspicious, Martins begins investigating his friend’s death, uncovering a seedy underworld of black marketeering, with Lime being one of the major kingpins. He also encounters Lime’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who pushes Martins to keep digging for details.
Here is where Greene begins to muddle things. As Martins leaves Schmidt’s apartment, he notices a man watching from across the street. In one of the most breathtaking shots in the history of cinema, the watching man is revealed to be Harry Lime, smiling and very much alive. Martins chases his friend, but Lime escapes to the sewers. The two eventually meet and have a tense discussion on the Wiener Riesenrad, where Lime tries to explain his crimes to Martins. Lime peddles penicillin—and fake penicillin—on the black market, causing much suffering and death. Martins decides to double-cross his friend and agrees to assist a British police taskforce raid into Lime’s sewer hideout in exchange for the British helping ensure that Schmidt, who is in Vienna on a counterfeit passport, is not deported to Soviet Czechoslovakia. Martins, it turns out, is in love with Schmidt. His decision to double-cross Lime and try to win the favor of his mistress sets up The Third Man’s rightly famous closing shot.
It may be difficult to believe that a film set in an iconic location—there are still, 70 years later, numerous The Third Man locations tours on offer to tourists to Vienna—featuring a script crafted by one of his generation’s most celebrated writers and starring arguably the most famous man in all of screen culture at the time (Welles) boasts cinematography as its best and most defining feature. But that is the case: The Third Man combines its dark post-war aesthetic with canted-angle Expressionist camera framing, haunting noir street shots and a few well-executed chase sequences. Shadows, wet street cobbles, dark angles and piles of debris do a marvelous job of highlighting the film’s action. Even today, The Third Man feels dangerous and evokes menace; there is an anxiety wrought by the deft camerawork. Post-war Vienna truly feels like a crime-ridden spot through the screen. Plus, there are the famous individual shots: the Ferris wheel conversation, the last scene of Schmidt and Martins after Lime’s second funeral and that shot that introduces Lime, with Welles standing in the most cocksure pose ever devised and grinning like a maniac. As a result of the combination of these elements, The Third Man is justifiably regarded as one of the best examples of film noir.