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From the Past

Films on the to-do list

  • Armageddon Time
  • Black Widow
  • Chimes at Midnight
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Last Christmas
  • Remember Sunday
  • Shazam! 2
  • Thor: Love and Thunder
  • Spy Guys

The Third Man (1949)

Film review: The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed

This classic film noir penned by Graham Greene currently occupies the 68th spot on IMDb’s Top 250 list and is set in post Word War II Austria.

American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find him deceased. He was run over. After the funeral, Martins gets a lift back into town and goes drinking with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Maybe it’s better to just get back to the States?

Fortunately, Martins gets invited as a guest speaker so he can stay a little longer – and as he thinks the whole affair with the car accident sounds fishy, he can start investigating the matter himself, seeing as how the police aren’t particularly forthcoming.

While following up leads, he meets Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend, and a host of other characters. Why are things not adding up about the accident? What do the police want with Anna? Who is the mysterious “third man” seen at the accident, but refuted by the other two present at the scene?

Also starring: Bernard Lee as Sgt Paine, Ernst Deutsch as ‘Baron’ Kurtz, Siegfried Breuer as Popescu, Erich Ponto as Dr Winkel and Wilfrid Hyde-White as Crabbin.

Apparently, the camera angles were controversial back in the day, someone giving the director a spirit level once as a half-joke, so he could put it on the camera next time. It’s very atmospheric as a film, though, which kept my interest up. That, and that the German speech wasn’t subtitled, but was occasionally translated or paraphrased in English by other characters. Rather interesting to see how much I could make out of what was said. The old landlady’s rants in particular, she was really adamant. “I’ve lived in this house for 60 years! This is not appropriate!”

Another thing keeping me on my toes was that Orson Welles was billed as the second cast member in the information. And it took him over an hour into the film before we see catch as much as a glimpse of the man. On the other hand it’s a darn good glimpse, and it’s as if the spirit of Lime is always around even if he’s not on screen.

Now, if you have a cable or satellite service with an info-button, you will most likely have the same problem as I did if you look up this film. It was a rather big spoiler, just because the wording they’d used to describe the plot was … clumsy, to say the least. Which meant that the twist toward the end wasn’t a twist at all. I knew from the outset why the story about the accident didn’t add up, and could therefore easily gather who the mysterious third man was. Surprised it took Martins et al that long to reach the same conclusion.

The more interesting part of the story is the character of Harry Lime, but then again, if he was a saint it wouldn’t have been much of a film noir, as they’re meant to have a gritty sort of feel to them. And this does. It’s very effective at that, even though the main theme is strangely jolly.

There are some great lines, some great acting, and whenever Welles shows up, he’s riveting. Captivating. And dreadfully appealing.

4 out of 5 cats.

(Update August 2021: This is probably my favourite Welles film, next to Citizen Kane. I might have to re-write this review now that I have seen it a number of times more and absolutely love it.)


An easily distracted and over-excited introvert who never learns to go to bed at a reasonable time. Enjoys traveling (when there's not a plague on), and taking photos of European architecture. Cares for cats, good coffee and Boardwalk Empire. A child of her time, she did media studies in school and still can't decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

4 thoughts on “The Third Man (1949)

  1. I knew nothing about the movie before I saw it, so the twist surprised me.  I love this movie and I love the fact that the lead character is a bit of a dunce although he sees himself as a clever man.  Unfortunately, I really hate that little tune which is a signature of the movie, but otherwise I think it’s one of the best movies ever.

  2. It’s a very strange tune. After all, it sounds so perky and up-beat – more fitting of a comedy or farce than a murder mystery!

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