Top 100 Movie Review: #57 – The Third Man (1949)

Sensational Cinematography.

The story was okay to good, but the visuals made the film. 

Joseph Cotton and Orson Wells.

American Film Institute Ranking: #66/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for three winning best cinematography.
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550

A whodunit wrapped around a historical time piece, “A Third Man” is another entry into the catalogue of film noir. It relies on tension created by relationships rather than overt violence. This doesn’t always keep the pace up, but the shots within the film are so intricate that it adds an artistic crust that makes up for the lack of action.

A great example of the film’s use of black and white.

[STORY] Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) comes to Vienna because his friend, Harry Limes (Orson Welles), has offered him a job. Holly is a Western pulp writer and is looking for steadier work. When he arrives, he learns that his friend Harry was killed crossing the street earlier in the day. Attending his funeral, he sees two interesting characters: Major Calloway with the British police (Trevor Howard) and Harry’s girl friend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli).

Major Calloway tells Holly that Harry was a criminal running a racket in Vienna’s blackmarket. He meets with Anna to learn more details about her now deceased lover. She suggests that his death wasn’t an accident, that Harry was carried off by two of his friends and a third man.

Holly spends the rest of the movie trying to find out about “The Third Man” in hopes of clearing his friend’s name and getting to the bottom of his murder.

A stunning scene that closes the film.

[ANALYSIS] I think the movie’s script is more exciting in reading than in execution. The story just drips of excitement, and I found myself getting reinterested when writing that short synopsis above. But, the film doesn’t handle it as well it could have. It’s much too subdued, and the climax of who the third man is happens much too soon (in the middle of the movie). This leaves no mystery for the back end, relying on tension between characters amplified by the cinematography.

One scene in particular is when Holly meets Harry in a ferris wheel:


From Harry’s view, you can see the people looking like ants down below, as he peers out of the booth’s door. You wonder if Harry is going to throw Holly out to his death. The height is as suffocating as the ill will between the two friends.

At the ending of the film, Harry runs away from Holly and the police in a labyrinth of sewers in underground Vienna. The maze’s tortuous path is further accented by the vibrant black and white differentials. When Harry runs into the final dead end, he sticks his hands through the gutter:


The writhing hands look like worms trying to squeeze their way to life. We already know Harry is trapped, but this image of his fingers attempting one last breathe cements a symbol of the “will to live” far more effectively.

The movie is packed with optical illusions like this: a forever recessing stairwell.

[CONCLUSION] “The Third Man” is heralded as a classic, and I can see why on certain fronts. I just felt like the story wasn’t as tightly wound as I expected — the backend of the movie is more about looking at pretty film shots rather than an interesting narrative. This prevented it from being a more highly rated film for me. If you are a fan of cinematography, however, this is the film for you.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Michael J. Cinema: “Martins’s struggle isn’t just one between best friend and girlfriend, but an existential struggle faced by European’s following the terror of the Third Reich. How does one operate in a world after they’ve come face-to-face with absolute villainy?”
  • Pete Laurie: The Third Man is a movie that pops up a lot in places where movie snobs and classic movie buffs gather.”
  • Cory’s Book Essays: “The Third Man itself is a surprisingly whimsical detective story taking place in postwar Vienna, where destruction from the war is still noticeable on the streets.”


  1. I was just mentioning this film to Music Enthusiast today. Enjoyed your piece. I really like this film for a lot of reasons including some of the ones you stated. Some memorable scenes and shots. Up for a rewatch soon. Oh yeah I’m a carol Reed fan. ‘Odd Man Out’ is one of my faves. Plus I like some of his nephews work.
    I really like the way you actually make up your own opinion on these films and not just ape the “This is a classic” bullshit. All that matters is does it do it for you. I’ll be back for more.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Why can’t we just make up our own minds and why can’t we just get along!
        (I’ve watched so called classics and listened to so called classic albums. I just didn’t get them. Moved onto ones that move me)


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