The mystery of The Third Man that never fails to thrill

Photograph: forgetfulfilmcritic.com

Rightly termed a classic, Carol Reed’s The Third Man amazes every time you watch it.

“Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don’t know what you’re mixing in, get the next plane.

As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I’ll get the next plane.

Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.

Mind if I use that line in my next Western?”

Post-war Vienna, sumptuous black and white cinematography, a protagonist searching for his friend and a meaning to his life, a timeless beauty, the mysterious Harry Lime and dialogue like that. The Third Man is quite simply a classic – a movie that stands up to repeated viewings and one that never fails to deliver something new each time you see it – the definition of a classic in my book. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it but whenever I feel like a trip back in time, out comes the DVD, or if it’s on TV, I tune in.

The Third Man_Alida ValliDirector Carol Reed, who’d just worked with novelist Graham Greene on The Fallen Idol, made the film in 1949, in a ravaged Vienna still reeling from the end of the Second World War. But in the story, Vienna has also remade itself as a centre for black market activities and it’s here that Joseph Cotten’s disenchanted pulp novelist Holly Martins comes to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime, who’s offered him a job.

But Harry’s nowhere to be found and when he’s suddenly reported dead, the arrival of Harry’s girlfriend Anna (the luminous Alida Valli) and the British authorities in the shape of Trevor Howard’s brilliantly caustic Major Calloway, seem to suggest that Harry wasn’t quite the man that Holly remembers. So he decides to stay and figure out what happened to Harry and maybe, just maybe, grow closer to the beautiful Anna. It’s the start of a mystery that Graham Greene (who adapted his novel for the screenplay) weaves with peerless power.

The Third ManWho is ‘the third man’ who seemed to be present at Harry Lime’s death but now can’t be found? What was Harry involved in? And can Anna be trusted, or is she as much of a victim as the people Harry duped into his black market schemes? It’ll have you hooked in no time.

And just when you think poor Holly has nowhere to turn, Orson Welles turns up to deliver one of the very greatest performances on film, that includes that fantastic “cuckoo clock” speech and culminates in the dazzling chase through the sewers. The shadowy monochrome images (rightly Oscar-winning for cinematographer Robert Krasker), the great acting (Joseph Cotten is such a fantastic lead), the haunting zither music (courtesy of Anton Karas) – if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about – if you haven’t, oh, you’re in for such a treat! Watch it.

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