The Third Man (1949)

I just watched Carol Reed's sublime 1949 noir The Third Man again, and it gets better every time. Joseph Cotton plays Holly Martins, an American pulp-novelist who finds himself in Vienna just after the war ended. He's looking for his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who promised him a job there. Upon his arrival, however, Martins discovers that Lime is in fact dead, recently struck by a car outside his apartment. Martins realizes something is a little fishy and begins to ask questions about Lime and the car accident that killed him, and begins to draw attention from the local international authorities, in particular the stern British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his friendly Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee, M from James Bond films!) as well as some local thugs, black-marketeers, and a handful of their cronies. Martins also gets to know Lime's lover, actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who does her best to divulge information as slowly as possible to the persistent Martins.

What follows is a cold, dark, and beautiful journey through the bars, police stations, desolate apartment buildings, the wet streets, and bombed out rubble that is Vienna circa 1946-47. Martins ends up both doing the chasing and being chased through the gorgeously lit night streets and sewers of the Austrian city. Identities are mistaken, loyalties are questioned, and people are bumped off!

Orson Welles has a very special role in all this, playing a character that everyone is talking about from the get-go, and does not even make an appearance until 2/3 of the way through the film. And his character's entrance, I maintain, remains to be one of the greatest character entrances ever filmed! (That essay to be written in the future!) This device can be risky; sometimes the character won't live up to all the talk. Not a problem here, the incomparable Orson Welles does what he does best, portraying Harry Lime as someone I both love and hate.

This is Welles' and Cotton's third of five (by my count) films they both worked on. Cotton was one of the main players in Welles' Citizen Kane, playing Kane's journalist and friend Jedediah Leland. Cotton was also in Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, The Tragedy of Othello, and his noir masterpiece Touch of Evil in an uncredited role as a coroner.

At the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, it won the Grand Prize of the Festival. At the 1951 Oscars it won Best Cinematography (Robert Krasker), and was nominated for Best Director and Best Editing. Classic score by zitherist Anton Karas.

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotton.

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