The Third Man • English Noir

Greenscreening Series #20

January 20, 2023

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The Third Man (1949) directed by Carol Reed


Director Carol Reed outdid himself with this noirish thriller set against a Europe physically and morally devastated by war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) – an alcholic American writer of cowboy stories – comes to Vienna to visit his old pal Harry Lime, only to be told he has died. Encountering a British military policeman (Trevor Howard) and Lime’s girlfriend (Alida Valli), Martins is forced to reassess both his friend and his own worldview. - The British Film Institute

Find The Third Man via Reelgood

*The Third Man*

Why The Third Man?

“A person doesn't change because you find out more” - Anna, in The Third Man

"The Third Man is one of my favorite films of all time. The story, the performances, the atmosphere - it’s all so perfect. The use of black and white, the way the camera moves, the way the film is edited, the music, everything. I must have seen it 20 times. It’s one of those films that I can watch over and over again and always find something new in it." - Martin Scorsese

The Third Man is regarded by the British Film Institute as the greatest British film ever made, and is consistently ranked highly in critics' lists of the greatest films of all time. In 2022, the film was ranked 63rd in the Sight and Sound Critics Poll.

Released in 1949, the film is a sort of culmination of the golden age of British filmmaking of the 1940s. The decade saw masterpieces by The Archers, the emergence of director David Lean (who would go on to create classic epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago), the rise of Sir Lawrence Olivier and his batch of classic Shakespearean adaptations, the export of Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood, and the emergence of director Carol Reed. Reed ended the decade on a hot streak, with Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948) leading up to The Third Man. For The Fallen Idol, Reed won Best British Film at the BAFTAs, Best Director from the New York Film Critics Association, and received a Best Director Oscar nomination.

For The Third Man's screenplay, producer David O. Selznick hired writer Graham Greene, who had written the screenplay for Reed's The Fallen Idol. Greene had established himself as one of the top writers, able to balance entertainment with serious themes and literary skill. The Third Man is an excellent example of Greene's style. The writing is lean and realistic, the tone gloomy and cynical. Greene was concerned with spiritual decay in the modern world, and the characters in The Third Man all struggle with ethics in a Vienna overrun with corruption. The overarching sense is that sin is real and pervasive in the world, that we're engaged in a perpetual struggle to do the right thing, but tragically susceptible to self-righteousness, hypocrisy, greed, and a host of other sins.

Reed's visual style is the perfect match for Greene's morality play. Maybe most obviously, Reed and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, employ noir style - the chiaroscuro lighting, shadow play, and oblique angles - to incredible effect, creating some of the most iconic images in film history, along with a highly suspenseful climax. Reed insisted on shooting most of the film on location in Vienna, still recovering from bombing campaigns in WWII, which gives the film an added air of authenticity. The film also includes many deep focus shots, which kept multiple elements of a scene in focus at once, creating a sense of depth, complexity, and ambiguity - a perfect match for a story about an investigation, where clues are often hidden in plain sight.

But The Third Man is also one of the prominent early examples of a technique known as the "unchained camera," where the camera moves independently of the action taking place on screen, often in unexpected or disorienting ways. This was highly influential on later directors, including Martin Scorsese. And finally, Reed and Krasker used handheld camera shots; with handheld shots, you can see the camera wobble or shake, which gives a sense of instability, but also spontaneity and realism - like a documentary or newsreel. The overall effect of these visual elements is reminiscent of Citizen Kane, with Reed using the medium to its full visual potential in a way that rewards multiple viewings.

*The Third Man*

The acting in the film is brilliant, but Orson Welles deserves special mention. Welles gives one of the iconic supporting acting performances as Harry Lime. Some of the credit is due to the writing; the story involves an investigation into Lime's mysterious death, so Welles is again the mysterious center of the picture, like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. But we know he'll be in the picture - he has second or third billing, so we're waiting for his appearance, wondering how they're going to do it, hyped by what we learn about his character along the way. Reed insisted on casting Welles; the studio wanted either Noel Coward or Cary Grant, both of which are hard to imagine in the role. And Welles makes the most of 8 minutes on screen, delivering an iconic monologue that, according to legend, he contributed to the script.

The Third Man also includes a memorable musical score by Anton Karas, featuring the zither, a stringed instrument that was relatively unknown at the time, adding to the film's distinctive style. While on location in Vienna shooting The Third Man, Reed discovered Karas playing at a restaurant and insisted on hiring him to play the music for the film. (By this point, you'll note that Reed did a lot of insisting on details of this film... Reed and Selznick wrestled over almost everything. Reed won, and the results speak for themselves.) "The Harry Lime Theme" from the film became a hit around the world in 1949.

*The Third Man*

In its day, The Third Man was immediately recognized as a classic everywhere except Austria. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which was cementing its place as one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The Third Man was 1949's biggest box office hit in Britain, and would capture Best Picture and Best Director at the BAFTAs. However, despite nominations for Best Director and Best Editing, the film won just one Oscar, for Cinematography.

The Third Man was highly influential on later directors. Martin Scorsese cited The Third Man as one of his favorite films and has acknowledged its influence on his own work - see the pull quote above for his effusive praise. Stylistically, the film continues to influence directors around the world, who study its intricacies and techniques. Director Steven Soderbergh has so closely studied the film that he provides a commentary track for Criterion's special edition of the film. In its day, the film also had tremendous impact on the film noir genre, encouraging directors in the 1950s to more fully explore its potential for evocative imagery and broader social commentary.

Earlier in the series, with Double Indemnity, we saw how American film noir focused on individuals and their disorientation in the postwar years, exploring the battle of the sexes and a pervasive self-destructive nihilism running through American society. Here Reed and Greene aim their film noir at broader questions of morality in the postwar world. The world had just seen the deaths of 50 million people in WWII, and was now entering a Cold War where Western and Soviet leaders treated the world like a board game, creating spheres of influence and fighting proxy wars that killed millions more. The Third Man follows Holly Martins as he investigates what happened to his friend, and as he uncovers deep corruption and moral decay in postwar Vienna. By situating a personal drama against the backdrop of a corrupt, fallen society, the film implicates all of us: when push comes to shove, do we actually care about consequences as long as we benefit or remain comfortable? This broader concern and far-reaching cynicism that makes The Third Man so powerful even to this day.

*The Third Man*

What to Watch For

  • The "cuckoo clock" speech, Welles' contribution to the script.

  • The city of Vienna as a character. Just like Casablanca, Vienna is a place full of colorful characters, spies, double-dealing, and shifting loyalties. And again, the characters' values are tested... Will they ultimately do what's right?

  • Highly expressionistic film noir production design and cinematography. You'll see chiaroscuro lighting as good as any other film, as well as the famous Dutch angles. As you watch, consider the effect this has on the world of the story.

  • The musical score. No soundtrack had a greater disruptive influence on film scoring until the dawn of rock-n-roll. Not only does it suit this film, but it inspired later generations to use character-centered scores and folk instruments.

  • Of the many iconic shots in the film, the final shot may be the best. Reed argued with Greene and Selznick over whether this ending suited the picture. Reed, again, was right.

Learn More About The Third Man

The Third Man from Roger Ebert's Great Movies

Norman Holland on The Third Man - contains lots of spoilers, so don't read until after.

Steven Soderbergh is a massive fan of the film, and provides a detailed commentary on the Criterion edition.

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