Who is the Third Man?



 Let me begin with a warning. Much of the joy of watching Carol Reed's The Third Man comes from something quite unexpected that happens. I will give that twist away. If you haven't seen the film, this review will spoil it for you. You should see the film, and you should see it before reading this review. I mean it. Now, Go Away, and come back after you rent the movie.

On to the review:

The Third Man is set in post WWII Vienna. It is a bombed-out city in ruin. The decay of the city mirrors the decay of the characters that populate it.

Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane) plays a hack writer who has come to Vienna for job offered him by his friend Harry Lime. He arrives just in time to find that Lime is dead.

At the funeral we see dirt thrown on a closed coffin.  Cotten notices a mysterious woman. She stands out because very few people have shown up for Lime's burial. We get the feeling that he was not a well-loved man. That guess turns out to be quite correct. The general dislike of Lime exists with good reason. It seems that lime was a criminal. He was hijacking shipments of antibiotics, diluting them and selling them at a huge mark-up. His actions have probably led to quite a few untimely deaths.

Much of the story revolves around events that occurred before Lime's death. Vienna is a city filled with intrigue, spies, criminals, and cops. Cotten finds himself embroiled in a mystery.
He is quickly obsessed with finding out the truth about his late friend. He is driven by a rather simplistic moral code that does not seem to fit in the world he has been plunged into. Cotton’s character is a classic noir trope: the simple man out of his depth.

Now, here comes the spoiler I warned you about. This is your last chance to bail out. I mean it this time:

Lime reappears.

We see him first standing in a doorway. This has become one of the most famous scenes in film history. And with good reason. When Lime shows up, we are so shocked, even though we should not be. We saw the credits, after all. Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil) has a credit. We know he plays Harry Lime. On some level we knew he would appear in the film, and yet we have been so cleanly convinced that Lime is dead.

If we thought there was intrigue and mystery before, we had no idea what was coming.
This film works on so many levels. As Film Noir it functions beautifully within the traditions of that movement. The dark surroundings, human decay, and moral ambiguity paint a world in decline. Noir works, to a large extent, because it places ordinary people in terrible situations. This film certainly does that.

But, it also transcends the Film Noir Genre. The performances by Cotten, Welles and the rest of the cast are triumphantly beautiful. They elevate what could have been a good Noir, like Double Indemnity, to the level of art.

Carol Reed (Night Train to Munich) directs with a steady hand and a real understanding of the medium. He was a true talent, and this was his finest achievement.

The score, with its use of the Zither, seems exotic, beautiful, and somehow cold.
The cinematography is some of the best in film history. Shadow and light are used like oils on canvass. The visions of Vienna become otherworldly, and beyond foreign. This city becomes a nightmare landscape yet holds onto reality.

In the final analysis this is one of the greatest films ever made, and should be seen by everyone who loves the medium.

One final note: there are many inferior prints out there. Some are so fuzzy, and cracked that the images are impossible to make out. By far the best print is the criterion Collection DVD. I suggest this version for anyone truly interested in the film.