The Greatest films of all time: 44.The Third Man (1949)(UK)


Cinema, born in US by Edison and in France by Lumière was simply a moving picture (movie) that only evolved in Russia by masters such as Eisenstein and Vertov as an art of camera work, cinematography and editing and later on in Germany by masters such as Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene with their German expressionism. The German expressionism in earlier classics such as “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” brought more art forms to this medium, with lighting, set design, use of shadows, and camera angles, granting the art of cinema, a rich imagery that meant to have. The German expressionism in time evolved to “Film Noir” with great films such as “M” of Fritz Lang (still German), “The Killers” of Robert Siodmak, and the masterpiece of Carol Reed “The Third Man”. The only American film that borrowed such imagery techniques from the earlier German works, was “Citizen Kane” of Orson Welles that was not a film noir, but influenced American cinema, so much to be still considered by many the greatest American film.


“The Third Man” who came out of Britain is also not only a film noir, but has elements of other earlier great films such as “Pepe, Le Moko”, “Citizen Kane”, “Le jour se leve”, and “Casablanca” in its detective story and mystery solving. Despite the film is not original in several aspects, has a powerful story written by the great novelist, “Graham Green”, grand direction of Carol Reed, superb use of cinematography by Robert Krasker and soundtrack by the Viennese composer, Anton Karas, and the great performance by Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt, and specially Orson Welles as Harry Lime.  


Who’s the Third Man?

The story which pivots around the mystery of the third man, opens with the scene of Vienna after the world war, running by the international forces and police, American, British, French and Russians. Martins, an American and an old friend of Harry arrives in the city to work for him, but finds out that he’s dead. This suspicion in the opening scene, is thrown to the careful audience as the first clue of his murder, by showing a floating body on the Danube river. The rest of the story, centers around the investigation of Martins who cannot believe some reports such as the police’s that his friend’s death has been an accident, but a murder.

The torn down and occupied Vienna after the war with its narrow old streets, suspicious people, international police and arm forces is all the best set design for the work of an expressionist cinematography, with the best story of a murder mystery solving. The second opening scene of the film is Martins attendance of Harry’s burial in a cemetery, meeting British army officers, sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who believe Harry was a criminal and suggest him to leave the town.


Later on Martins finds out that a theatre actress, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) has been Harry’s girlfriend, so going to meet her in her theatre. Anna is the only one that suggest Harry’s death has not been an accident but probably a murder. They go together to question the porter of Harry’s apartment building who has witnessed two friends of Harry, Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Popescu (Siegfried Breuer) have been carrying Harry’s dead body with another third man, nobody knows who would be! The police who are now following Martins to share his discovery information of the death or murder of Harry, storm to Anna’s apartment for the search of any evidence in solving murder mystery, but find out her forged passport and scare her of deportation back to Czechoslovakia.


Meanwhile the porter has been slain in his apartment and a large crowd standing outside his building watching carrying his dead body out, when Martins and Anna arrive to the scene. A little boy of the building, in previous scenes seen playing inside with his ball, recognizes Martins to have argued with the porter before, when questioning him through his investigation. The boy suspects Martins as the killer pointing him to the surprised and upset crowd who all start chasing Martins, who runs away along with Anna. The chase through the dark and narrow streets of Vienna, down the stairs and else, all with the best expressionist cinematography, angle, close up and long shots, enriched by the score of Anton Karas, all create a thrilling imagery on the screen.

Major Calloway who still is pursuing Martins to leave Vienna, reveals the criminality of Harry who has been stealing penicillin that was rare and only available in the military hospitals after the war and was selling them in the black market for high prices. This convinces Martins to leave the town, and while leaving Anna’s place to say goodbye to her, notices in the dark of the night, someone standing in a dark doorway with Anna’s kitty licking his shoes. A brief light through a window, identifies Harry with a smile on his face, ignoring Martins calling him to come out, but running away. Martins starts chasing him, in the dark streets of Vienna with another magic cinematography and score of Karas. This time the audience is shocked by seeing Harry being alive, now with the great acting of Orson Welles completing the mystery and the mastery of the film. Martins who loses Harry easily in the dark and upset with the whole situation, calls the police and they find out that Harry has fled through the underground sewers. Meanwhile everybody knowing Harry is alive, his pledged coffin is exhumed to discover the body being of Joseph Harbin who stole penicillin for Harry.


The next day, Martins goes to Kurtz apartment building, shouting from outside demanding to see Harry at the Vienna’s Ferris wheel. Harry trying to justify his criminal behavior of stealing penicillin, diluting and selling them at high price in the black market and causing brain damage to many children of the city from meningitis, that more major crimes have been committed by the different government throughout the history. Martins now seriously strives to help the police to spot Harry and hand him to the law, but Harry again escapes through the underground sewers. But since Vienna is a “closed city” now, occupied by the allies and nobody could easily escape, Harry is surrounded by the international police and army and every single exits to the sewers are all blocked by them. Finally Harry shoots Paine to death, and trying to escape through an exit while already shot and wounded by Calloway, that Martins grabbing the dead Paine’s revolver and kill Harry.


The film ends at the second but this time real burial of Harry, along with Calloway and Anna, who ignores Martins and walks away, while they driving by her.

A Re-celebration of Cinematic Expressionism:

Although there are controversies over a clear definition of “Film Noir”, a term that was coined by the French critic, Nino Frank in 1946, and while the term is used often to denote a black and white crime drama in 1940s to 1950s, the great classics such as “The Third Man” are most of all, a re-presentation or experimentation of an earlier German expressionism. The film while a crime drama, like “Citizen Kane” is a method of story telling on the screen with mystery discovery, played again by both Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles.


Other than the angle shots seen in the earlier German expressionist films and “Citizen Kane”, the film brings more of “still” close-ups cinematography to the screen, adding to the suspicious and mystery of the story. The close up shot of Anna in the window looking like a picture frame, the shot of the bridge and the spiral staircase, in bottom up and top down angles, and lastly not the least the great shot of the Vienna’s Ferris wheel, are all a re-celebration of cinema as an art of imagery. 


Graham Green who wanted a happy ending for the film against Carol Reed’s ending as it is, confessed later on that Reed was right for the dark ending, completing the whole story and the atmosphere the film created on the screen. There is also a controversy over the contribution of Orson Welles in direction of the film along with Carol Reed, more than the role of acting, as there are similarities in the film with his “Citizen Kane”, “The Stranger”, and “The Lady from Shanghai”, all made before this film.


The film not appreciated by some, such as the critic of “The Observer” and “William Wyler” at the time for its awkward angle shots and cinematography, was later on hailed by most of the world critics and other filmmakers for the same reason. Despite all, the film was recognized by the academy awards only for the best cinematography, but won the best picture in the British Film Awards and the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.


In closing remarks “The Third Man” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“The Third Man” though not very original in its mastery over camera work and cinematography, but it made overall such an original mix of earlier expressionist techniques, better than before and enriched the art of cinema with another example of masterpiece of imagery that could be considered original in its own right.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “The Third Man” is in the application of the past and at the time present cinematic techniques from cinematography, different angel and still shots, close-ups and long shots, all well fit into the story and completing the mystery and the thriller. To all is added the music score of Anton Karas, played only on German “zither” that is an earlier version of the modern guitar.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “The Third Man” has been on many future film noirs, and expressionism in cinema that did not end but here and there a few of its techniques were used in other works of cinema, such as “Stray Dog” of Akira Kurosawa” in 1949, “Dark City” of Alex Proyas in 1998, and “L.A.Confidential” of Curtis Hanson in 1997. The influence of the film on Martin Scorsese as a teenager, that could be read in the “Independent” issue of June 23, 2015, prompted him to be a filmmaker and what could be done with the camera. At the end of his article, Scorsese realizing the film has not yet been fully recognized, calls for “re-evaluation of the work of Carol Reed, a wonderful film artist”.
  4. Survival:“The Third Man” has survived well to this very day as it could still be watched, thrilled, enjoyed and most of all to be surprised and learn the art of filmmaking long before digitalism.



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