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Should I Watch..? 'The Third Man' (1949)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

The Third Man is a mystery thriller film released in 1949 and was written for the screen by Graham Greene. Directed by Carol Reed, the film depicts an American fiction writer in post-war Vienna caught up in a conspiracy involving his recently deceased friend and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli (credited as Valli), Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. The film is famous for its iconic soundtrack and theme, performed on a zither by Anton Karas, as well as its extensive use of Dutch angles in its cinematography. The film was initially reviewed harshly when it was released but critics in the UK and US adored the film and it continues to be held in high regard today. In 1999, the British Film Institute voted the film the best British production of all time and it came second in a 2011 poll in Time Out magazine. It was also recognised by the Academy with a total of three Oscar nominations, winning Best Cinematography (Black & White) for Robert Krasker.


What's It About?

In the aftermath of World War II, Vienna is a shadow of its former glory with many parts reduced to rubble and split into four quarters that are ran by the various Allied powers - the Americans, Soviets, British and French. Arriving in the city is American writer Holly Martins who decides to forgo writing his western books after being offered a job by his old friend Harry Lime. However, upon arriving at Harry's apartment where he's due to stay, he is told that Harry tragically died after being hit by a car a few days earlier. Attending Harry's funeral, Holly's attention is caught by Harry's girlfriend, actress Anna Schmidt, before he is questioned by two members of the British Military Police - Major Calloway and his sidekick Sergeant Paine who inform Holly that his friend was not the sort of chap Holly remembers.

Afterwards, Holly meets Anna as she comes off stage and they discuss Harry's passing where it emerges that Harry's doctor just happened to be on the other side of the street and Harry's driver just happened to be driving the vehicle that killed him. The pair of them quickly start to believe that Harry's accident might not have been as accidental as it initially seemed. Calloway warns Holly to leave the city at the risk of discovering some unpalatable truths but Holly decides to stay and conduct his own investigation, unaware that his awkward questions attract the wrong sort of attention...


What's to Like?

Whenever I watch a classic film such as this with its mighty reputation, there is a slight fear that such praise might not be justified in this day and age. Thankfully, I need not have worried about The Third Man which has retained much of its original power thanks to a variety of factors. Despite the quirky soundtrack and largely British cast, the film feels like an authentic film-noir thanks to Cotten's perfectly pitched performance as the cynical writer at the heart of the story. And for the brief time he is on screen, Welles is electric as Lime whose charm and wit make him one of cinema's most cherished lovable rogues despite his obvious character flaws. And surrounded by equally inspired turns from Valli (who is the epitome of the classic femme fatale), Howard and Bernard Lee, the film has as solid a cast as it could hope for.

Knowing little about the film beyond its stellar reputation, I was delighted to find the narrative both complex and yet easy to follow as I sometimes struggled during films such as The Big Sleep despite having read the book as well. The fact that the film is shot on location in Vienna, the scars of the war still very much visible, adds to the realism and actually helps the modern viewer understand the story given how the city's story after the war is mostly lost to history these days. It also gives the film a stark appearance with grand buildings and architecture appearing on screen opposite dimly lit sewers, bomb sites and rubble and the famous Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel. It is an ever-changing backdrop and one that gives the film a slight Expressionist vibe, reminiscent of Fritz Lang's dark thriller M. In fact, it's difficult to point to any one aspect of The Third Man which isn't anything less than excellent.

The film is wonderfully shot with Vienna feeling like a character itself. Plus it's loaded with a quality cast and a brilliantly written script - what's not to like?

The film is wonderfully shot with Vienna feeling like a character itself. Plus it's loaded with a quality cast and a brilliantly written script - what's not to like?

Fun Fact

  • The film makes extensive use of a tilted camera angle, known as a Dutch angle, to portray uneasiness or tension which is a common feature of expressionist cinema. In fact, Reed used Dutch angles so often during the shoot that when the film was released, he was gifted a spirit level!
  • The film shares more than a few links to the James Bond series of films. Not only did future 'M' actors Bernard Lee and Robert Brown appear on screen but so did Geoffrey Keen who played Defence Minister Sir Frederick Gray in the franchise from 1977-1987. In addition to this, the film's crew also included Guy Hamilton who directed several Bond films including Goldfinger and an uncredited John Glen who also directed some of the later films such as For Your Eyes Only and Licence To Kill.
  • In 1999, a proposed remake starring Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor was announced with Die Hard director John McTiernan in charge, relocating the film's plot to New York. This was good news to screenwriter Buck Henry who promised to take a shotgun to anyone who dared remake The Third Man after he saw the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep!
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What's Not to Like?

My only real issue is with the film's unusual and probably unique soundtrack, provided by Anton Karas and his zither. It provides a jaunty and unforgettable background to the film's narrative but I wasn't as sold on it as the film's producers who actually advertised the film on the back of the soundtrack's success. While it's certainly distinctive, I wasn't sure it felt right on every occasion - at times, it seemed to lighten the atmosphere of a scene when it wasn't necessary. But watching this film was a genuine delight - as I said before, I had little expectation or exposure to it before viewing and it easily swept me up onto this fantastic story with complicated characters, fascinating cinematography and some of the best work from a number of high quality actors. I even liked the fact that the film refused to subtitle the dialogue that wasn't in English, keeping us in the shoes of Holly in this strange and sometimes alien setting.

Zither aside, this is a superb mystery and an excellent example of film-noir to anyone unfamiliar with the concept. It brings an American authenticity to British filmmaking and it is a match made in heaven, feeling every bit as hard-nosed as a Bogart private detective but with a quirky sense of humour and a cheeky glint in its eye. Take Welles' famous 'cuckoo clock' speech as a prime example - it's possibly the most inspired dialogue I've seen delivered by a character, one that not only makes them likeable but also illustrates their view of the world and demonstrates that however enjoyable their company may be, this isn't someone you want to know for too long.

Cotten's portrayal of a bewildered writer thrust into a complex mystery is pitched perfectly and brings some film-noir authenticity to a largely British cast.

Cotten's portrayal of a bewildered writer thrust into a complex mystery is pitched perfectly and brings some film-noir authenticity to a largely British cast.

Should I Watch It?

Without question, The Third Man thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the greatest British films of all time. It's enthralling, wonderfully shot and paced and full of actors at the peak of their powers. Even if you think films like this aren't for you, give it a try because even if you're not a movie geek like me then this film will still provide a decent mystery that doesn't dumb itself down and still feels fresh today. In fact, the only people I can think of who might not approve are post-war residents of Vienna but they are few and far between these days.

Great For: film students and tutors, film-noir fans, cinema historians, anyone looking for a first class thriller, zither sales

Not So Great For: black-and-white snobs, the easily bored, anyone hoping to see Orson Welles for more than five minutes

What Else Should I Watch?

While it may seem hyperbole to compare The Third Man to something definitely Expressionist like M, there are actually more similarities than you might suppose besides stark lighting and funny camera angles. Fritz Lang's chilling 1931 thriller, set in a declining Berlin literally turning in on itself hunting for a child murderer, stars Peter Lorre as a deranging serial killer finding himself gradually cornered by an increasingly bloodthirsty mob. It's a dark and bleak watch but like this film, it feels ahead of its time and is utterly compelling from the very start. It also influenced countless other films that came after it, including The Third Man as well as films like Seven and even Dirty Harry. If you're looking for something even more Expressionist then you'd need to go back even further - The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari is a 1920 silent horror that really set the standard for the style, utilising set design and lighting effects (or more accurately, lack thereof) to create a film set in a nightmarish Bavarian town haunted by the spectre of a mysterious killer.

Reed is a director sometimes overlooked in the pantheon of great British directors, overshadowed perhaps by more influential figures like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. While this is undoubtedly his best known film, he also earned critical acclaim with films such as another film-noir Odd Man Out, the musical adaptation Oliver! and the spy comedy Our Man In Havana. Being only the second British director to be knighted for his work (the first was Alexander Korda, who produced much of Reed's most acclaimed work), Reed's career was tragically cut short after he passed away at the age of 69 in 1976.

Main Cast


Joseph Cotten

Holly Martins

Alida Valli (credited as Valli)

Anna Schmidt

Orson Welles

Harry Lime

Trevor Howard

Major Calloway

Paul Hörbiger

Karl, Lime's porter

Bernard Lee

Sergeant Paine

Ernst Deutsch

"Baron" Kurtz

Erich Ponto

Dr Winkel

Siegfried Breuer


Technical Info

DirectorCarol Reed


Graham Greene

Running Time

104 minutes

Release Date (UK)

2nd September, 1949


PG (1989 re-rating)


Film-Noir, Mystery, Thriller

Academy Awards

Best Cinematography (Black & White)

Academy Award Nominations

Best Director, Best Film Editing

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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