The Third Man

Year 1949

Joseph Cotten   as  Holly Martins
Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt
Orson Welles as  Harry Lime
Trevor Howard as Major Calloway
Director - Carol Reed
Screenwriter - Graham Greene  

Although categorized as a mystery, the identity of the third man is really secondary or even tertiary to the cinematography and characterizations that make this movie necessary viewing at least once.

To summarize the obvious events in the movie, Holly Martins (Cotten) travels to Vienna to visit and perhaps be employed by his old friend Harry Lime (Welles) only to find that Lime has been killed under mysterious circumstances. Martins decides, against the advice of Major Calloway, to investigate the death and finds that although Calloway believes only two men assisted Lime at the time of his death, there were actually three men. Who Harry Lime really was and how close of a friend Holly Martins was to him are the true reasons for watching this movie.

Questions are not quickly answered and as they come to their leisurely disclosure, the viewer is treated to scenes of postwar Vienna, the duality of people, the haunting theme of the movie as evoked from a zither, and some snappy dialogue.

This is a black and white movie and the director and cinematographer use the medium to its utmost. Darkness and shadow are blended for daylight street scenes but contrasted sharply at night or when providing a close-up of some truly interesting Viennese faces.

Since Vienna was a bombed out city barely on the road to reconstruction, the director was captivated by the dichotomy of standing structures amid the rubble.. He was also fascinated with the labyrinth of sewer and storm drain runoff streams beneath the city.

The movie starts slow and despite Cotten's and Valli's attempts to mesmerize the audience, it's rather mediocre. Entertaining but mediocre. It's not until the movie is nearly half over that the acting really becomes something special.

From this point on, there will be spoilers. So, if you don't know the answer to the mystery, go watch the movie now! If you do know the answer, please keep reading.

You see, Harry Lime is a bad man. He knows he's a bad man but he tries to rationalize away his sins. He's alone and needs the companionship of Martins. In fact he needs Martins to understand the reasons behind his actions. If he can gain Martins' understanding, then Lime might be able to forgive himself. But Lime also knows that Martins is a liability. Even though Lime needs Martins to understand, he knows he can't trust anyone.

On Lime's trail, reluctantly because he's overworked, is Major Calloway. Major Calloway is just one member of multinational police force tasked with keeping Vienna as free of crime as possible. He tells Martins that his friend Lime sold watered down black market penicillin. But when corruption is accepted as the norm, can Martins believe that Calloway is telling the truth or just a version of it? And can he really betray his friend regardless?

Two memorable scenes come to mind. The first is between Martins and Lime while they sit in a gondola atop what has to be the tallest Ferris Wheel ever. Lime is torn between throwing Martins out of car and embracing him as a friend. The second scene shows just the fingers of Lime stretching through the holes in a sewer grate, testing the grate for ease of removal. Just the image of the fingers stretching slowly up through the holes in the grate against the darkness of the night filled the scene with tension.

Did I mention snappy dialogue?

Martins: I was going to stay with him, but he died Thursday.
Crabbin: Goodness, that's awkward.
Martins: Is that what you say to people after death? "Goodness, that's awkward"?

Martins: As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I'll get the next plane.
Calloway: Death's at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.

Martins: Listen, Callahan.
Calloway: Calloway. I'm English, not Irish.

Calloway to Martins: I don't want another murder for this case and you were born to be murdered.

Lime: Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Calloway: We should have dug deeper than a grave.

Welles, despite his relatively short time on film, owns this movie. I've never understood Welles's need to work with Cotten. Cotten isn't a bad actor, but it's obvious that he's working at being an actor in every scene. Welles just is and dominates through his natural screen presence.

If you can put up with Martins asking everyone, "Did you know Harry Lime?" for the first part of the movie, you'll be well rewarded for the remainder.

There's some chick flick potential as a result of Anna Schmidt (Valli). Martins falls for her but she's Lime's girl. Can Martins win her? Will she love or hate Martins in the long run? The answer is perfect.

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