There's a wonderful symmetry to Carol Reed and Graham Greene's classic of British noir, The Third Man. In something akin to the interplay of light and shadow that so epitomizes the movie's visual style, there is also an interplay of various elements in the story itself. Perception and reality, reputation and action, and the solid, old fashioned morality of good and bad. Survivors in this story stand in the gray, neither too enveloped by shadow or too exposed by the light. Forcing the world to conform to an either/or scenario will only be your downfall.
The Third Man is the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp novelist who has traveled to post-War Vienna on the request of his school chum, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Believing he is coming to the bombed-out city to help with a medical charity, Holly is surprised to discover that Harry has died in what the police are calling an accident. Other versions of the story suggest it's murder. The loud and brash American wants Calloway (Trevor Howard), the more reserved British officer who had been investigating Harry, to look into the incident, but in Austria--a territory now divided by several different nations and thus criss-crossed by various standards of laws and lawlessness--such deaths will all come out in the wash. According to his police file, Harry Lime wasn't a very nice dude, and the city's populace is better off without him. Holly refuses to accept that Harry isn't the stand-up guy he always knew--even though even he admits that Harry was always running some kind of racket--and starts poking his nose where it doesn't belong. He's consistently warned away, but his cowboy naivete shoves him hopelessly forward. It's Graham Greene's self-reflexive critique--the writer is going to have to learn the difference between the easy morals of the printed page vs. the complications of the real world.
The title refers to a mysterious figure who was there at Harry's death but whom no one will officially identify. Holly believes the key to finding the truth is uncovering the identity of the third man. In another nice piece of symmetry, Holly picks up a female sidekick along the way. Anna (Alida Valli) is a Czech actress who was Harry's lover, and she's the only person besides Holly who will ever swear to Harry doing a bit of good. Together, they will have their belief in the man they knew tested, and Holly will also become smitten with her. Does he really love her, though, or is it a kind of playground payback for another indiscretion years prior? (Anna even calls him Harry a couple of times.) Or, once again, must it really be one or the other? All we really know is that only Anna's cat is truly loyal to the missing figure. He doesn't trust Holly, but he still has a thing for Harry.
The Third Man has earned a reputation based on three major components. First, the dark visual style. Reed plays up the noirish paranoia by taking full advantage of shadows, showing men in silhouette or their figures cast across a stone wall. The climactic chase through the Austrian sewers is dizzying and exciting, taking us down into the metaphorical underground of men's souls via the foreboding tunnels pumping their real world waste. The second component is the zither music, and the famous Harry Lime theme that would become an international hit.
The third, not coincidentally, is Harry Lime himself. As played by Orson Welles, he is an attractive scoundrel. When he shrugs and asks his pal what the big deal is, it's hard not to chime in, "Yeah, Holly, what's the big deal?" His entrance in the movie is often cited as one of the most famous in cinema. Where first there was darkness, then there is light, and with it, Welles' impeccable naughty-boy smirk. The amazing thing is that Welles is barely in the movie, only a couple of scenes. Oftentimes, when a movie is about how everyone is obsessed with one particular person, that person isn't interesting enough to make us understand why anyone is getting so bent out of shape. In this case, we see exactly why Harry Lime is the eye of this particular storm.
The director Reed and the writer Greene would collaborate together several times, but The Third Man is definitely their best effort. Perhaps it's telling that this is the one story they developed exclusively for the screen. It's a virtuoso thriller, full of twists, turns, and red herrings galore. Black humor that's really funny, slithering menace that really feels threatening, and a grisly denouement that ranks amongst noir's most cynical finales. If you've ever been concerned before, or even let down, by a film not living up to its reputation, The Third Man should cause no such concerns. This is the real deal, one that others will always be measured against.
The Third Man is an absolute must.
Originally written May 22, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.