The Third Man (1949)

This post is a part of our New Voices Section.

Written by Sam Hollis.

“The Third Man” blends the visual style film noir is so known for with personalities and motivations that an audience can fully grasp. It is a mystery that made me confront aspects of my own identity, without lacking charm, suspense or character.

Holly Martins, played with restraint by Joseph Cotton, is a pulp writer who has come to a broken post-war Vienna to meet a dear friend, Harry Lime. However, upon arrival Martins is told that Lime was killed walking into traffic, a story he finds hard to believe. He becomes obsessed with the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death, and the identity of the shadowy “third man” who was seen helping two of Lime’s friends carry the body from the road.

“The Third Man” is about waning morality in times of desperation. Our protagonist, Martins, is stuck. He is unhappy in his work, a burden on those trying to help him, and miserably unmotivated. With the reveal that Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is alive we are introduced to a character who opposes the ideals we have followed to this point.

Lime was the role Welles was born to play. A man known for transformation, this performance feels effortless in a way that no other of his does. Ego driven but utterly charming, Lime is the mischievous bastard I think we all sometimes wish we could be. We learn first-hand that he is incapable of love and is prepared to sacrifice anyone in his life necessary. Would you rather be a miserable hero or a confident villain? I think there are elements of both men in all of us.

Robert Krasker’s cinematography remains breath-taking to this day. Expressionistic elements are used to give Lime’s world a twisted feel. Characters intertwine in a way that may be tiring for some, but Krasker’s use of strange canted angles and exaggerated lighting frame the film’s gallery of characters in a way that makes each one feel distinct.

The films resonant thematic interests are surrounded by moments of pure cinematic joy which continue to thrill me with each viewing. A chase through the sewers of Vienna, a spotlight revealing a smirk like no other, an intimidating discussion on top of a Ferris wheel, and a closing shot that twists genre expectations. Supporting roles are filled with vibrant performances, particularly from Alida Valli as Lime’s former girlfriend and Trevor Howard as an officer investigating his black-market crimes. These characters feed the ideological clash between our leads.

With “The Third Man”, Carol Reed crafted a story that continues to set a standard for storytelling as it ages gracefully. It is dark, it is mysterious, it is fun, but it is not disconnecting, as many films of its nature were. This is real noir.


Sam Hollis is a student based in Wellington, New Zealand, completing a postgraduate degree in journalism at Massey University. He has completed a bachelor of arts degree from Victoria University of Wellington majoring in film and media studies. He aspires to be an arts journalist, reporting on film and music.

Twitter: Sam_Hollis1

Instagram: samxhollis



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