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Essentials #3: THE THIRD MAN (1949)

Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Joseph Cotton, and a zither guitar star in Carol Reed’s noir masterpiece about black market goods and murder in post-war Vienna.

THE THIRD MAN is the reason why I watch movies. Aside from it being beautifully crafted, it has everything you look for in a movie: mystery, intrigue, humor, intelligence, romance, and even irony for good measure. It simultaneously celebrates the joys of watching movies while invoking the excitement they are capable of. I watch this movie once a year (usually October) and always feel the way I did when I first saw it at 16. Mesmerized.

It’s the kind of filmmaking I aim to produce in my own work someday. It’s artistic, yet unpretentious. It’s simple, yet entertaining. It’s escapism without excess. For a few hours, you are transported to an ephemeral time and place that is romanticized in our own dark history.

America loves to gloat about its past; specifically, World War II. Not only does this movie embody that same nostalgic post-war attitude, but it also deconstructs it. We hear playful music juxtaposed against images of a civilization carved by the terrors of war. We observe the ennui of soldiers who are “only following protocol” contrasted with the black market desperation of its citizens.

In the midst of all this madness lies an intriguing mystery set in a post-war setting, characters only a pulp writer could imagine, and a love triangle between best friends and a beautiful Italian woman. No. I didn’t spoil anything. I only gave a broad description for a movie that is all plot, character, and atmosphere wrapped into one.

At its core, THE THIRD MAN is textbook noir. It’s full of cynicism, tragedy, and existentialism. And like many noirs, this movie deals with the theme of identity. For example, notice how everyone mispronounces each others’ names and how often the characters are mistaken for one another. Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? In this setting, morality is ambiguous and you are left wondering which side to root for.

I also really love the characters in this movie. They are so rich, so authentic, so unforgettable that you immediately get the feeling they could have existed in this era. From the English soldiers, Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine to the seedier characters like Kurtz and Popescu, to even the walk-on roles like the Austrian balloon salesman and the landlord that mistakes heaven for hell.

The Third Man’s scribe is famed novelist, Graham Greene. There is such layer to this story, such complexity to the relationships between these characters that when they speak, they are capable of being vulnerable, sardonic, and introspective all at once. Only a skilled and experienced author like Greene could create dialogue and imagine characters like this, not your average screenwriter. These are people that have lived life. They’ve experienced love, heartbreak, success, failures, and death, which is probably the main cause of their cynicism, that they can be so authentic with themselves in expressing it.

Notice the beautiful noir dialogue in the classic ferris wheel scene [with credit to how it is directed and performed] and how it’s clear in that we understand the stakes involved as well as where each character stands. The two leads banter around the most serious of subjects without explicitly acknowledging the seriousness of it all.

Harry [on ferris wheel]: …don’t be melodramatic. [gestures to people far below] Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man…

Martins: Lot of good your money’ll do you in jail.

Harry: That jail’s in another zone. There’s no proof against me…besides you.

Martins: [holding onto the window ledge] I should be pretty easy to get rid of.

Harry: Pretty easy…

Martins: …I wouldn’t be too sure.

Harry: I carry a gun…[looks down below]…don’t think they’d look for a bullet wound after you hit that ground…

Pay attention future screenwriters! This^ is how you write dialogue that has a context and a subtext. And there are so many great lines like this in the movie that compliment the silent parts; particularly, the revelation of the third man and the 8-minute sewer chases sequence in Vienna. In the final sequence, we are left with what, in my opinion, is the greatest ending to a movie I have ever seen.

This is my third review, so it’s only fitting that you see THE THIRD MAN.

Other Highlights:

  • Robert Krasker’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous. He creates an atmosphere that resembles a perpetual night.
  • The groundbreaking use of dutch angles at the time depict the peculiarity of Vienna and its people. Krasker makes such great use of shadow and light that we feel like we are in one of those rooms made of smoke and mirrors. It makes sense. Nothing is ever as it seems in this movie.
  • The famous Zither score by Anton Karas is brilliant. It doesn’t fit the conventional thriller per se, but adds to the absurdness of it. I’d describe it as the kind of music you hear echoing on a street when you travel somewhere.
  • The famous Cuckoo-Clock speech. Welles ad-libbed part of his now-famous line and the delivery is so whimsical and charming, it makes it hard for you to dislike him
  • Again, that ending. If you notice closely, the trees are bare, but the leaves keep falling since the director felt that leaves were a necessary component for the ironic tone of the scene. Detail matters. I won’t say more. It’s simple, poignant, brilliant…it’s perfect.
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Notice the strong use of shadow and light. Krasker’s cinematography will forever immortalize the beautiful and gaunt look of post-war Vienna. Image:,%20Joseph/Annex/Annex%20-%20Cotten,%20Joseph%20(Third%20Man,%20The)_05.jpg

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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