The Third Man (1949)

the third man

The Third Man is a British motion picture, directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949. It stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, Orson Welles as Harry Lime and Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt. The events of The Third Man take place in the Austrian capital Vienna at the conclusion of World War II. Like Berlin, Vienna has been split into Soviet, American and British occupation zones. The film depicts the city as a bleak and unhappy place, politically divided and still in the grip of rationing, shortages and a thriving black market. It is also shadowy and dangerous, occupied by desperate people and characters, some of whom may be spies. The screenplay for The Third Man was written by Graham Greene, a prominent British novelist. Greene visited Vienna in 1948, immediately prior to writing the script. During this visit he completed tours of the divided city, getting to know its underbelly and experiencing some of its political machinations.

The film’s protagonist, Martins, is a writer of Western pulp fiction who travels in Vienna to work with an old friend, Harry Lime. He arrives to find that Lime has been killed in a road accident, though he soon comes to suspect it was no accident. Martins begins his own investigation in Lime’s death, meeting his acquaintances and delving deeper into Vienna’s murky underbelly. He meets Lime’s girlfriend Anna, his physician Doctor Winkel and the sinister Popescu. Ignoring warnings, Martins discovers that Lime was stealing antibiotics from medical hospitals to sell on the black market. He also discovers that Lime is alive and meets him on a Ferris wheel. Here Lime delivers a monologue that seeks to justify his actions. Martins must then decide whether to join Limes – or to hand him over to the authorities. The outcomes in The Third Man are classic film noir, containing no resolutions or happy endings.

The Third Man was both a commercial and critical success. Critics praised its casting, particularly Welles’ performance as Harry Lime; Reed’s use of camera angles and shadow to create atmosphere and suspense; and the haunting zither-based theme music. The film won Academy Awards for best cinematography and a British Academy Award for best picture. While the storyline of The Third Man contains no overt political themes, its depiction of Vienna in the first years of the Cold War is compelling. It is also loaded with metaphor. Martins, for example, symbolises American idealism in an exhausted and cynical Europe. Of particular interest is Harry Lime’s famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, when he tells Martins that great things only emerge from societies in conflict.

Content on this page is © Alpha History 2018-23. Content created by Alpha History may not be copied, republished or redistributed without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.