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The Third Man Poster

A film noir set in post war Vienna, The Third Man is the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an innocent writer of Western pulp novels. Martins is invited to Vienna by his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Martins arrives from America to find that Lime has been killed in an accident and the British police suspect Lime of racketeering.

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”?

At first Martins believes that Lime has been murdered, so with the help of Lime’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli), he starts investigating Lime’s death. The police convince Martins that Lime was in fact involved in racketeering, specifically stealing penicillin from military hospitals, diluting it, and selling it on the black market. Martins then discovers that Lime is alive, he had faked his death, and he isn’t the person he thought he was – the police have got it right.

Harry 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.

Orson Welles is magnetic in the short screen time that he is given, and Joseph Cotton holds the film together with a strong performance. The cinematography is noteworthy, Robert Krasker won the Oscar in 1951 for his work. The use of shadows and titled camera angles is stunning, so much so that the film has been described as black and white poetry. The narrative of the film reflects the fear, suspicion and distrust that was rife in post war Europe.

A classic film noir, definitely worth a watch.

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Have you seen The Third Man? What did you think of it?

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11 thoughts on “The Third Man (1949)

  1. Nice post — I’m a big fan of “The Third Man”. I wouldn’t personally classify it as film noir, but that’s always a fuzzy category. Either way — the film makes great use of shadows, literal and figurative. It’s morally ambiguous, with insights into the nature of identity and the demands of loyalty. Post-war Vienna comes through as a character in its own right, and the leads are all good (especially Welles).

  2. I love The Third Man, especially for the camerawork and abundance of Dutch angles, but along with Ministry of Fear and Berlin Express, for me it exists in this gray area between noir and ‘war suspense’, and I’m never sure where to classify them. I’d like to call them noir, but the fact they take place outside of the US (a personal noir prejudice!) makes me hesitant to classify them as such. Maybe a sub-genre…foreign noir!

    • Good comments — reminds me that I really need to see “Ministry of Fear” (been in my queue for a long time).

      Small observation, but I just looked at Roger Ebert’s twitter page. Not positive, but I think that the one picture there is a still from the conclusion of the “The Third Man.”

      • Thanks Christopher! It’s been a while with me for ‘Ministry of Fear’ as well, so I think I’ll re-watch it again, too. And I tried to check out Ebert’s twitter page, but couldn’t; I’ll keep trying, because now I’m curious about that photo!

      • You’ve inspired me to watch Ministry of Fear guys, I’ve just ordered it from NZ equivilent of Netflicks – will let you know how it goes (or will write an entry)

      • Yes, please keep us posted! I remember it being a fun little espionage thriller, with a few neat turns and Hitchcockian moments…but beware the cheeseball wrap-up!

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