THE THIRD MAN
The Third Man – a 70 year old movie – has to have more than just a good racketeering story-line to remain viable after so many years. The devastated Eastern Europe city of Vienna helps quite a bit. The European portion of WWII ended in 1945. The Allied-occupied city of Vienna, Austria was the filming location for The Third Man in 1949. Vienna at the time was occupied by the US, England, France and Russia, each country patrolling their sector of the city.
Seeing the bombed out sections of Vienna is interesting enough. However, the superb black and white photography using ominous shadows and close ups makes the bombed out city blocks of Vienna even more haunting. Robert Krasker’s cinematography employs odd off-kilter angles in some scenes. The off-kilter shots signify just how “off” everything is in Vienna at the time. “Everybody ought to go careful in a city like Vienna” warns one of the characters.
Harry Lime (Orson Wells) invites Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) an American writer of Western novelettes to come to Vienna for work. Holly arrives, with not a penny in his pocket, just as they are lowering Harry Lime’s casket into the ground.
Details of Harry’s death are slim and contradictory. Therefore, Holly Martins vows to figure out why Harry Lime died or who killed him.
This brings Holly in contact with the British Army Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Also, a variety of Harry’s friends – Dr. Winkel, Baron Kurtz and Popescu. The friends give the impression of being sleazy and a bit off-kilter themselves. Holly finds Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, billed as Valli) Harry’s lover. Russian Police are hunting Anna for deportation. While Holly was working through this off-kilter maze of friends and International Police, Harry Lime appears 2/3 of the way through the movie. Harry is alive and well.
The Third Man is an intelligent and complicated story playing out on the streets of Vienna. The film has a bit of unrequited love, and a satisfying non-ambiguous conclusion. However, to still be watchable after 70 years there has to be a little more oomph or energy to make it timeless. One of the oomphs is the zither music by the Viennese Anton Karas, the only music in the movie. The Third Man theme song was a big hit in 1950.
But, the main timeless energy of the movie are the iconic scenes filmed in the bombed out, empty downtown areas. Favorite scenes include a little impish boy accusing Holly of murder and leading a crowd of locals chasing Holly through the bombed out blocks. The scene on the 1897 Vienna Ferris wheel, one of the first things restored after the war since it is beloved by the city. Harry and Holly ride the ferris wheel, where death threats are implied, actions explained and some memorable lines. Moreover, this scene better defines Harry Lime, and changes everything in the movie.
But the final chase scene through the rat-infested sewers of Vienna where police from the US, England, France, Russia, and Austria chase Harry is excellent. The shadows, the sewer, the lighting, the sounds and the end of the chase all are worth seeing. Acting throughout the movie is excellent (at least by 1949 standards). Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotton, Valli and Orson Wells all make the movie quite enjoyable. Overall, The Third Man is a timeless classic, with a good story-line, and great photography, music, and acting. The film is restored and will still be watchable in 2089.