Cult films to see before you die: The Third Man

James Oliver

Learn all about the film noir classic that is The Third Man... 

These days, the late 1940s are remembered as a glorious—or at least optimistic—time: the war had been won and the welfare state was being built (the NHS came on-stream in 1947). No doubt you could leave your door unlocked when you went to the shops too, probably whistling a cheery tune as you went.

But all this is rather contradicted by the films of that era: these were the prime years of what would later be called “film noir”, darker, more cynical movies that often ended very unhappily indeed. This is not to say that cinemas weren't well provisioned with comedies, musicals and the like, only that audiences weren't always looking for escapism.

All of which brings us to The Third Man. If any movie deserves to be described as “film noir”, it's this one: first released in 1949, it stares deep into the darkness, inviting us to consider the horrors of the previous decade and pondering how they might have happened.

Set in post-war Vienna, it begins with the arrival of a chap called Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten. He's American, a writer of cheap cowboy novels who's come to Europe at the behest of his old friend Harry Lime, who reckons there's good money to be made as the continent re-builds itself.

Trouble is, Harry's just gone and died; an accident, or so it is claimed. But this all sounds a bit fishy to Holly, so he begins to investigate, charging into the fray like the straight-arrow hero from one of his Westerns. He is determined to find the truth. Unfortunately for him, he does.

Although structured as a mystery, there's a bit more to it than that, as one might expect from Graham Greene, author of the original scenario. Already famous for his tales of moral frailty (not to mention a fondness for downmarket settings), Greene was the leading novelist of his day. He'd just worked with director Carol Reed and producer Alexander Korda on a film called The Fallen Idol; all three were keen to work together again, so Korda commissioned Greene to write another script.


The Fallen Idol (1948)

A trip to Austria convinced the writer he'd found the perfect setting; if things were bad in Britain, with its rationing and austerity, they were worse in Vienna, plagued by rampant exploitation and a thriving criminal black market, all overshadowed by the grim hangover of wartime defeat.

The newly international setting encouraged Korda and Reed to think beyond the domestic market; striking a co-production deal with super-producer David O Selznick (of Gone with the Wind fame) allowed them access to Cotten, a genuine Hollywood star who would allow a crack at the US market. And since the actor playing Holly was American, it made sense for another American to play Harry Lime (who—spoiler alert !—turns out not to be as dead as first thought).

So it was that Orson Welles—an old friend of Cotten, as it happened—was recruited, and we may be thankful indeed for that, for he is simply perfect as Lime. It's (probably) his best work as a screen actor, even if there's a suspicion there wasn't much acting involved: like the man he was playing, Welles was a charming son-of-a-b***h; a show-off who always overshadowed the likes of Cotten, one of nature's wing-men.


Orson Welles 

In a normal movie, a character like this would be the hero. Here, though, Lime is a wrong 'un, his enormous charisma masking an absent conscience. His actions in Vienna—well, those are best discovered for yourself, but they illustrate the seductive power of evil all too readily.

Contrary to rumour, Welles had nothing to do with directing the film. That was all the work of Carol Reed, and a stunning job he made of it too. Working with his cameraman Robert Krasker, he created a vision of Vienna that was both realistic (rubble galore) and nightmarishly surreal, all looming shadows and distorted angles (techniques Welles would borrow for his own later projects, in fact).

Indeed, more even than Greene, it was Reed who shaped the film. The original script had a happy ending—after all, that's what happens in movies, doesn't it?—but Reed was having none of that. The Third Man closes with one of the most indelible moments in cinema, as poor milquetoast Holly realises just how ineffectual he really is.

Then again, there are so many memorable moments in The Third Man; the first time we see Orson Welles step out of the shadow; the famous scene in the ferris wheel, where Lime justifies himself by talking about cuckoo clocks; the chase through the sewers (and the fingers through the grating)... and that's all before you mention the music by zither player Anton Karras, who Reed discovered playing for tourists in a bar.

Upon release, The Third Man caught the mood like few other films did, that brief moment when people were reflecting on the war and its aftermath showed what the human race was capable of.  Soon enough, the economic boom would start and nostalgia kicked in, but we have The Third Man to remind us of what was forgotten, of a time when optimism was rationed like everything else.

It turns 70 this year, and celebrates its birthday in right royal style—returning to cinemas on September 29 for one night only; see it on the biggest screen possible.