The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man first published by RealCrime Magazine

As Anton Karas’ zither leads in with its memorable theme, the title credits for The Third Man appear over a close-up of the instrument itself being plucked. Already director Carol Reed is playing us like a maestro, announcing from the outset that his film will be pulling our strings, while those jaunty notes introduce just the right tone of teasing irony. If the topic of this film – a penicillin racket in the occupied and divided Vienna of the late 1940s – is deadly serious, the approach of Graham Greene’s screenplay is playful, even cynical.

Fresh off the plane from America, pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) tries to uncover the mysterious circumstances in which his old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has recently been killed. It is a cloak-and-dagger scenario which might seem like one of Martins’ own fictions, were it not for the lack of any identifiable hero or romantic resolution.

The clash of real life and fiction is also reflected in the way DP Robert Krasker’s canted angles and chiaroscuro lighting transform genuine Viennese locations (and the odd Shepperton studio set) into a heavily stylised playground for expressionist noir. On the crooked path towards his double-dealing friend, Martins falls in with – and for – Lime’s ex-girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) who, though a professional actress carrying false papers, turns out to have more integrity than most in a world of shadow and illusions.

Meanwhile, the real world keeps intruding upon this sprightly little intrigue, whether in the form of postwar ruins and rations, blackmarkets and austerity, or the early frosts that herald the approaching Cold War. The Third Man is a gripping, funny thriller suggesting that, despite our human capacity for both charm and righteousness, when push comes to shove we all belong in the sewer.

© Anton Bitel