The Third Man was released in 1949 and was directed by Carol Reed. The screenplay was written by Graham Greene, who also wrote the classic Brighton Rock, starring a very young Richard Attenborough. The film’s cast includes Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and the incomparable Orson Welles.
The plot follows Holly Martins (Cotton), a writer of cheap western novels. He comes to post-war Vienna to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Welles). When he arrives he is surprised to find that Lime has been killed in an accident. However, the cause of death was suspicious, and no one can say for certain what happened. Being a little too nosey, he starts to probe the accident and is met with silence, lies and deceit. After a while, we get the sneaking feeling that Lime is still in the land of the living. Seriously, it is pretty obvious that Orson Welles’s character is alive. Lime is being pursued by a British Major, played by Trevor Howard. This is due to Lime’s nefarious connections to the black market in Vienna. His job is complicated by the fact that post-war Vienna is sub-divided into different zones, each with a separate country in charge. The rest of the film concerns the pursuit of Harry Lime.
The movie was filmed in black and white and won an Oscar for best cinematography in that medium. To make the city look truly spectacular, the streets were hosed with water so they would glisten magically on film. This was a truly inspired idea, as they play a big part in the picture.
The Third Man has many terrific shots, which have rightly gone down in movie folklore. Welles’s introduction is stunning in its simplicity but is oh-so memorable. Incidentally, the shot of him fleeing shortly after his first appearance was achieved by having a person of short stature run down a street. This produced the correct shadow required for the shot. Because Welles could not be bothered to turn up on set at certain times, the renowned shot of ‘his’ fingers poking through the sewer grate, were actually Carol Reed’s instead.
The film also has one of the cinema’s most readily identifiable scores. The unusual instrument which provided the music is called a zither, which resembles a guitar without a neck crossed with a harp. It is utterly unmistakable after one listen, as all great scores should be. The instrument was played by an Austrian named Anton Karas.
This noir is thoroughly enjoyable and is rightly regarded as one of the best films ever. It has also been voted best British film on numerous occasions. Even though Orson Welles is only onscreen for a short time, he is fantastic in his role. His contrite face and playful demeanour are excellently realised. This film and others really proved that he was cut from different cloth. Watch and enjoy.
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