Third Man, The (British Lion 1949 with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard)

UK / British Lion – London – David O’Selznick / 100 minutes / 1949

Writer: Graham Greene, from his own story / Cinematography: Robert Krasker / Music: Anton Karas / Producer and Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee, Paul Hoerbiger

This classic film was recognised from the start as a major cinematic work. It won the Grand Prix at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival and was named Best British Film of all time in the BFI’s 1999 poll. Director Carol Reed was rightly nominated for an Academy Award and cinematographer Robert Krasker won the Academy Award for his vividly atmospheric high-key monochrome cinematography.

The Third Man ‘s executive producer Alexander Korda had wanted to make a film about the aftermath of the Second World War in a European city. What he really wanted, said Greene, who visited Vienna to work on his screen story, “was a film about the four-power occupation of Vienna. In 1948 Vienna was still divided into American, Russian, French and British zones and the inner city was administered by each power for a month and patrolled by groups of four soldiers drawn from the four powers. It was this complex situation Korda wanted to put on film.”

The celebrated story finally cast Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American writer who comes to Vienna to be told that his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has been killed in a street accident and that he had been dealing drugs on the black market. Martins meets Lime’s frightened mistress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and finally Lime himself, who proves to be very much alive and indifferent to his criminal life. Reluctantly Martins helps the police trap Lime in the sewers…

The Third Man is rightly celebrated for its classic sequences: the first glimpse of Lime, suddenly illuminated in a doorway after a cat has led the camera to him; his and Martin’s meeting on the big wheel in a deserted fairground; and the climactic chase through the sewers. But it is very much of a piece; the small scenes work as well as the large ones and Reed’s evocation of the mood and look of the still-shattered city help make it one of the best and most stylish British post-war films.