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Carol Reed's Masterly Atmospheric 'Noir',
This review is from: The Third Man: Special Edition [DVD]  (DVD)
One of the more curious things about Carol Reed's classic 1949 film The Third Man is that, although rightly touted as a 'British classic' (indeed, it recently came second in Time Out's poll of greatest ever British films), with a co-producer (alongside great 'Brit' Alexander Korda) of Hollywood's David O. Selznick, and starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles it has a distinctly international flavour. This feeling is then, of course, reinforced by its rubble-strewn post-WW2 setting of multi-jurisdictional Vienna (each of the UK, US, France and Russia controlling specific sectors of the city), and the film's resulting multi-national casting.
At the core of Reed's film, which is based on the novella by Graham Greene (who also wrote the screenplay), is a story of the black market trafficking of medicinal drugs (in this case, penicillin) as Joseph Cotten's pulp novel author, Holly Martins, arrives in the Austrian capital to meet up with erstwhile friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who (allegedly) has a job for Martins, only to find Lime now deceased, the victim of a mysterious car accident. What follows is an intriguing (albeit slow-paced) story, as Martins digs to find the truth behind Lime's alleged accident, uncovering more and more disturbing detail about Lime's activities as he goes.
For me, whilst The Third Man's narrative is generally engaging (and, at times, very funny), what converts the film from being merely good into a classic is the 'noir-like' look and feel with which Reed has imbued his film. I would guess two-thirds of the film is shot at night, and Robert Krasker's chiaroscuro cinematography of the (often echoing) night-time Viennese streets is stunning, and (particularly in relation to the film's interior shots) with the film's innovative framing and tilted camera angles, Krasker's approach calls to mind Greg Toland's work in Citizen Kane. Of course, to round off the film's unmistakeable and unique feel is Anton Karas' quirky zither playing which is (pretty much) all-pervading.
Acting-wise, for me, Cotten is merely adequate in his central role - for example, he has nothing of the nuanced presence (admittedly in a very different character role) of his Uncle Charlie Oakley in Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt. However, otherwise, Reed has assembled a brilliant cast, with many notable character turns. Alida Valli is stunningly glamorous (and generally very engaging) as Harry's hopelessly devoted, erstwhile girlfriend Anna, whose time in the city is marked as Harry has forged her passport. Trevor Howard is similarly convincing as the upright and officious British Army Major Calloway, who is on Harry's nefarious trail, and is constantly trying to convince Martins and Anna of their misplaced allegiance. Then there are a whole host of great cameo turns, ominously mysterious locals trying to throw Martins of the scent - Ernst Deustch's chihuahua-carrying 'Baron' Kurtz, Erich Ponto's Doctor Winkel ('Vinkel!') and Siegfried Breuer's Mr Popescu - and also Wilfred Hyde White's 'cultural propagandist', Crabbin, and Bernard Lee as the well-intentioned archetypal, cockney geezer Sergeant Payne.
I almost forgot, of course, Orson Welles' (late, 62 minutes in) entrance as Lime is one of cinema's great moments, as his cat ('He only liked Harry') nuzzles up to Harry's shoes in a shadowy doorway. Welles is typically excellent as the cold and blasé Lime, whose famous pseudo-Nietzschean speech ('Swiss cuckoo clocks') delivered in the fairground Ferris wheel compartment is one of the film's highlights. Other standout scenes are, of course, the climactic chase through the Viennese sewers and the memorable concluding cemetery walk sequence.
The Third Man stands as part of a superb triumvirate of films made by Reed during the period (alongside 1947's Odd Man Out and 1948's The Fallen Idol) and is an example of British film-making at its most innovative and engaging.
The DVD also includes an extremely informative 90 minute documentary on the making of the film.