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The Third Man

A movie directed by Carol Reed

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Cuckoo Clock

  • Feb 13, 2009
Pros: Orson Welles makes an impression!

Cons: Can be tough to follow

The Bottom Line: Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

One of the great tragedies of cinematic history is that Orson Welles really didn't capitalize on the potential he showed with Citizen Kane. He made a couple more noteworthy movies like The Third Man and Touch of Evil, but mostly his career just faded out to the point where he was voicing commercials during his later years to keep a full belly. I haven't seen Touch of Evil, but his role in The Third Man could be brushed aside as if it were an everyday cameo were his character not so conspicuous. Welles has only three scenes in The Third Man, but the impression he makes in those scenes is what stays with you long after the credits stop rolling. 

The character Welles plays in The Third Man is named Harry Lime. He's an old pal of the main character, Holly Martins. Martins is the true protagonist of The Third Man. The movie kicks off when Martins touches down in Vienna. He has been promised a job by Lime, but an unfortunate accident sees to it that Martins practically goes straight from the airport to the funeral. Who is the person in the casket? Harry Lime! Or at least it's supposed to be. Martins quickly develops a bad habit of asking questions about Lime's death. When the accounts begin to conflict just a bit too much, his suspicion is aroused. It's even more so when everyone keeps suggesting that he just go home. Martins isn't the kind of guy who likes to be jerked around, and so he vows to get to the bottom of it by hook or by crook.

The path to the truth twists and turns and almost drives Martins nuts. Him and Lime had been buddies for 20 years, and just now he's starting to see a side to Lime which he didn't know existed. The Police Chief, Calloway, isn't being very helpful - he wants to use Martins as  pawn. Plus Martins is also starting to ogle Lime's mistress, Anna Schmidt. Holly's investigation takes him into an underground labyrinth of shadiness, murder, deception, and racketeering. There's a lot of talk about a third man who took Lime's body after it was smacked by a car, even though a lot of people say there were only two.

The most intriguing aspect of The Third Man is how it's able to create a powerful character presence without the character in question actually being there. Think of Sauron from Lord of the Rings - he definitely had a certain kind of command over everything that happened. But you never actually got a look at him. The Third Man creates this same type of feeling; Harry Lime presides over so much of it that he's almost a puppet master, making everyone in the movie dance to his every whim. He does everything he can to block Martins' search for him. When he finally makes his grand entrance, it's almost intimidating because you've built him up so much in your mind.

I feel no shame in throwing out the spoiler that Lime isn't actually dead because the back of the freaking DVD case even says so itself. But after all the mindgames The Third Man plays with you about Lime, his appearance is bound to be a letdown. But it isn't. Lime's few scenes in the movie are everything you would expect from him. In the first one, Lime makes his entrance standing in a doorway nook. He stands there, not really trying to do anything other than remain hidden. In the second scene, Lime delivers his famous monologue about the cuckoo clock. I didn't really understand his motivations, but it was nonetheless a very good scene. 

But The Third Man belongs every bit to Joseph Cotton, who plays Holly Martins, as it does to Orson Welles. It's Martins, after all, who nonchalantly goes after his friend's killers. He spars constantly with Calloway, and falls unrequitedly for Anna. As he gets closer to the truth, he doesn't really seem to let the confusion bother him. He begins being completely surprised by everything that happens, but by the end, he's angry, nervous, and frustrated to the point where he can't afford to be surprised. He simply makes himself stone cold, so that he can gather the next piece of information and not get emotional. When him and Lime finally meet, Martins is solidly in pursuit of the truth. There's nary any wailing about how they used to be friends.

The Third Man is very atmospheric, and part of the reason why is because the cinematography is the best I've ever seen. The camera work is spectacular. The main photographer is named Robert Krasker. He always manages to catch shots at the widest angles and the characters in just the right light. The movie's on-location filming lends a true air of authenticity. The musical score mainly sounds like guitar work. My musical knowledge is resigned pretty strictly to knowing what I like and what I don't like, so I can't really describe it. But there's no stereotypical doom and gloom music. Instead it kind of lingers around the movie's forefront, and its almost upbeat sound lends a lot to the topsy-turvy plot of The Third Man.

The Third Man is a real mind-screwer. It's very labyrinthine, and it can be tough to figure out what's going on at certain times. But it's mystery/thrillers like The Third Man which cause the belief that the 40's through the late 50's was the Golden Era of movies. The Third Man may not be quite as good as The Maltese Falcon, but you get the mysterious and powerful presence of Orson Welles in it. While Falcon has Humphrey Bogart, there's no way Bogart would ever have pulled off the role of Harry Lime.


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More The Third Man reviews
review by . August 24, 2010
One of the great film-noir movies of all time!!!
Carol Reed’s 1949 film-noir “The Third Man” is Reed’s greatest work, and probably Orson Welle’s second greatest acting role of his career!  This is not an idle boast considering this movie is considered the greatest British made film of all time by the British Film institute, (#57 on AFI’s top 100).  By the way, Welle’s has the unique distinction of also acting in the #1 movie on the American Film Institute list, “Citizen Kane”!!!   …
Quick Tip by . August 29, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Carol Reed’s 1949 film-noir “The Third Man” is Reed’s greatest work, and probably Orson Welle’s second greatest acting role of his career!  This is not an idle boast considering this movie is considered the greatest British made film of all time by the British Film institute, (#57 on AFI’s top 100).  By the way, Welle’s has the unique distinction of also acting in the #1 movie on the American Film Institute list, “Citizen Kane”!!!   …
Quick Tip by . October 30, 2009
Amazing cinematography and soundtrack, great acting. As dark as it gets!!
review by . September 21, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Ah, what an excellent, entertaining little film this is! I'd heard of it, off and on, throughout the years, but never seen it until I had the joy of getting the Criterion Edition of the film, so I come to it as fairly recent first-time viewer.    The movie's plot, as you know, centers around an American writer, Holly Martens, who goes to post-War Vienna to work for a friend named Harry Lime. When he gets there, he finds that Lime has met an untidy end, one that gets more and …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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About this movie


This classic noir mystery, from the team of Carol Reed and Graham Greene, is generally considered to be the best filmwork of both of these estimable talents. THE THIRD MAN features Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a pulp novelist who has come to post-WWII Vienna with the promise of work from his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When he finds that Lime has just been killed in a questionable car accident, he decides to remain in the city to investigate his friend's demise.

There have been few better movies in the history of the planet thanThe Third Man, and fewer still as brilliantly directed from second to second. Orson Welles played the title role, and his legend has tended to engulf the film. But it was directed by Carol Reed and written--except for a Wellesian riff on the Borgias--by Graham Greene, and the credit for this masterpiece is properly theirs. Theirs and Joseph Cotten's; for awesome as Welles is, hisCitizen Kanesecond banana is onscreen about six times as much, and Cotten uses every minute to create one of the most distinctive--if also forlorn--of modern heroes.

You know the story. Holly Martins (Cotten), a writer of pulp Westerns and one of life's congenital third-raters, arrives in post-WWII Vienna only to learn that his old pal Harry Lime, the guy who sent him his plane ticket, is being buried. Everybody, from a cynical British cop named Calloway (Trevor Howard) to Harry's Continental knockout of a girlfriend (AlidaValli) and his sundry ...

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Director: Carol Reed
Genre: Film-Noir, Mystery, Thriller
Release Date: 31 August 1949 (UK)
Screen Writer: Graham Greene
DVD Release Date: November 16, 1999
Runtime: 104 min
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Citizen Kane

The creative genius of Orson Welles


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