The Third Man

Talkie of the Week: The Third Man

UK 1949, 104 minutes, black & white, British Lion Films. Director: Carol Reed, Written by Graham Greene, Based on a story by Graham Greene, Music by Anton Karas. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard

Plot summary: Western pulp writer Holly Martins has arrived in Vienna to meet up with his friend Harry Lime who was found dead shortly before his arrival. By trying to find out what happened to Harry, Martins is being sucked into a spiral of lies and deceit in a city that’s divided by mayhem and the emerging cold war.

Review: Who doesn’t know it, the famous score from The Third Man written and played by Anton Karas on his zither?! A musical theme that’s both entertaining and haunting. One of those famous songs that will never leave you after you’ve seen the movie, after the music drew you deep into the plot and followed you all the way through, from beginning to end. It’s the kind of theme that adds suspense to a story that’s already thrilling. It supports a brilliant cast of actors who know better than only to entertain. They leave us in the dark about their characters, their motivation and fate like they only did in film noir when a melancholy end was still enticing and a happy end not a necessity.

I suppose it would be interesting to watch The Third Man without its score. I must admit I’ve never tried to divide the heart from the soul, because, after all, isn’t that what a good score is all about?! It breathes life into a film to make it make it work beyond the pictures and the words. To make it memorable. I feel that’s how it is with most great films – they have that lasting effect on you because every detail was carefully composed: the cast of actors, the storyline, cinematography and then the music. Together they create a mood, a look, something you will take with you and remember. And in the case of The Third Man, it all starts when that zither starts to play and the credits begin. You are being sucked into the story like Holly Martins is sucked into post-war Vienna and the untimely demise of his friend.

We get a glimpse of antebellum Europe, of its history and the people who have survived murder and mayhem, who are tired of questions and betrayal. We meet people who are adapting to their new situation, who have learned to overcome a war and want to forget. We also meet our American hero who doesn’t fit in. Who, like us, doesn’t belong into this world and is trying to understand it. Who is fascinated by a city in a state of division, who is unwilling to accept the boundaries of that reality.

The Third Man will surprise you in many ways. It is clever, exciting and well played. There is also something about the movie I cannot explain. It’s one of those classics people will recommend to you and you may find yourself reluctant to see the reasons for all the praise. All I can say is this: give The Third Man a chance and have a look at it from a fresh, untainted perspective and you may find a gem you keep whistling the score of all day.

Available on DVD and Netflix. The 3rd Man trailer