The Third Man (1949)


The Third Man is perhaps the best known film from British director Carol Reed.  Set in an atmospheric, tired and cynical post-war Vienna, the film tells the tale of an American novelist who arrives to meet a friend, only to find that he has recently died; hit by a car.  He stays to investigate his death which soon becomes a search for a “Third Man” who was present at his death.

For a classic film noir, I thought that The Third Man took a long time to really do anything.  I felt like a lot of the first half played out like Get Carter as Holly was investigating the death of his friend Harry, but the screenplay was rather pedestrian.

That’s not to say it doesn’t look great, the post-war Vienna shown is full of deep shadows and moody lighting.  Chases through the streets and sewers are tense, atmospheric and are easily the best thing about the film.


When it turns out that Harry isn’t actually dead, he is the eponymous Third Man, the story is thrown into disarray much like Holly’s thoughts.  The intrigue is ratched up as we try to understand what actually happened.  Orson Welles does a grand job being Harry emerging from the shadows, literally and figuratively.  Joseph Cotten does well as Holly, but his relationship with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) never felt natural, unlike his verbal sparring with Welles.

The final shot, however, is completely brilliant.  A stationary camera watches as Holly loiters waiting for Anna who is walking slowly towards the camera from a distance.  We expect Anna to, perhaps not fall into his arms, but at least talk to him.  Instead she keeps on walking straight towards us, past Holly, ignoring him completely.  That is the final shot.  Very striking and daring.

End Spoilers


I suppose the only other classic Film Noir that I’ve seen is The Big Sleep, which I thought was fantastic.  I therefore expected the same kind of twisty turney plot in The Third Man, and when that didn’t happen so much I was a bit disappointed.  Also the relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep was amazing; compared to that Cotten’s rapport with Valli just felt stilted.

Reading this back it all sounds rather negative, which is not the impression that I want to give.  The plot builds slowly, until a spanner is thrown in the works, at which point all bets are off.  Robert Krasker’s photography is very striking and moody, and the main cast are good (it even features a pre-M Bernard Lee).  But, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion man.


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