Movie review: The Third Man (1949)

Considered one of the best film noir, The Third Man is set in the ideal film noir location: post-World War II Vienna. With its cobblestone streets and bombed buildings lying in rubbles, Vienna was the perfect backdrop for such a movie.

Famous author Graham Greene initially visited Vienna to conjure up ideas for a film. In Vienna, he heard tales about post-WW II deprivation, the flourishing black market, and the sewer system that allowed one to move from sector to sector without showing papers. (Vienna was divided into four quadrants—British, American, French, and Russian—as well as a shared international sector.) He was told tales of racketeering and stories about men who inspired two of his characters.

From his experiences in Vienna, the story of The Third Man was born. Holly Martins, an American author, arrives in Vienna, invited by a friend for a job. At it turns out, he arrives just in time for the end of his friend’s funeral. Harry Lime died under mysterious circumstances and Holly digs around to try to understand the contradictions in the stories he hears.

Like most film noir of the time period, The Third Man contains some witty repartee.

“I was going to stay with [Harry Lime] but he died.” “Oh dear, that’s awkward.”

“It’s a shame.” “What?” “Him dying like that.” “Best thing that ever happened to him.”

The policeman to Holly, warning him to be careful, “I don’t want another murder. And you were born to be murdered.”

Many of the actors in the movie are Austrian who knew and spoke little or no English. Many scenes are spoken in German without subtitles, an intentional tactic to recreate what the scene must have felt like to the American Holly Martins who knew no German.

The leading lady, Alida Valli, distinctly reminds me of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Or perhaps her acting and manner of speaking are just stereotypical of women in film noir.

Orson Welles, who plays Harry Lime—the third man at the scene of his “death”—first appears two-thirds of the way through the movie. His character is discussed at length up to that point, building suspense about who this elusive Harry Lime is.

In some scenes, Orson Welles is only visible by his (or more aptly, his stunt double’s) shadow in the dark Vienna streets due to the fact that Welles arrived several weeks late for the filming. However, viewing the character only as a shadow increases the film noir-ness of the movie and heightens the sense of intrigue.

Now I feel the urge to see film noir movies that I haven’t seen and to revisit ones I have seen to discover what bits and pieces may have influenced The Third Man…and what bits of The Third Man influenced later film noir.


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