In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Vienna stood as a nexus where soot-stained cynicism met and mingled with nefarious opportunity. Like most of Europe, Austria struggled to rebuild after the destruction of the Third Reich. Industry was hobbled; food and medicine became scarce. The Third Man, one of the most beautiful and tightly constructed mysteries ever made, deploys this beleaguered atmosphere as a supporting character unto itself. Characters lurk in dark corners and creep through sewers and alleyways, their shadows dancing like ghosts on the cobblestones. This is a film of and beyond its time, bridging the refinements of classics such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane with the progressively darker storylines that would dominate American film noir, the French New Wave and eventually help demolish Hollywood’s archaic Production Code.
The story begins as Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a writer of Zane Grey-style paperbacks, arrives in Vienna. His old buddy, Harry Lime, has sent for him with the promise of finding work. Martins has no sooner set foot in the city only to find that Lime has been killed under mysterious circumstances. Determined, Martins begins to untangle the unsavory details of his friend’s life and death, including his involvement in the Viennese black market and his relationship with Anna, an emotionally fragile Czech actress (Alida Valli). One of the joys of the film is watching Cotton’s character struggle through a parade of contradicting witnesses, menacing cops, and urbane thugs who toy with him and plot his destruction. And like any great mystery, the script unveils many clever (and very, very imitated) plot twists.
Though Orson Welles did not direct this film (he only plays a supporting character), the stylistic innovations of his early work radiate throughout. The camera tilts into Dutch angles, casting unnaturally long shadows and underlining the moral ambiguity of almost every character. This film ranks alongside Citizen Kane (and Touch of Evil later) as one of the finest examples of black and white cinematography. Several shots stand as self-contained masterpieces, such as Welles’ character introduction, his eventual attempt to escape a sewer grate (with his fingers desperately wriggling into the air above), and the final shot of a lonely woman bisecting a barren dirt road. These pockets of cinematic perfection would be hailed and discussed by critics if they were in a contemporary movie, let alone 70 years ago.
The Third Man is one of those rare works that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and via many viewings. It occupies a distinguished patch on the quilt of film history: Welles’ (self-written) Ferris wheel monologue, Anton Karas’ rollicking (and maddeningly catchy) zither theme, and the final chase scene—they have to be seen by any serious movie buff. Beyond that, you can sense the influence it would have on a million directors who came after, from Truffaut and Goddard to Spielberg and Scorsese.