A Summary and Review of The Third Man

A Summary and Review of The Third Man

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  1. As the opening credits roll on screen on British director Carol Reed’s film noir classic, The Third Man (1949), the sound of silly, carnival-esque zither music introduces you to what will be a rousing jaunt through the streets–and sewers–of post-WW II Vienna.

    A British film noir, The Third Man features star performances from Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, and Alida Valli. Holly Martins (Cotton) is a bumbling pulp Western novelist who ends up in Vienna looking for his friend Harry Lime who has coaxed him into joining him on a mysterious business venture. As soon as he gets to Lime’s apartment, though, Martins learns that Lime died just the other day. This leads him to become entangled in the illegal tradeing on the black market, conspiracy, murder, and one very striking woman, Anna (Valli).

    The Third Man is a film filled with moments that will influence budding cinematographers and designers. From its stark contrasts between light and black, jagged shadows to the percussive sound of a desperate man running through the city’s tunnels, The Third Man presents a unique perspective and the true hand of an auteur director. Even the sounds contribute to the bizarre sentiment: key characters talk to Holly in languages he cannot understand and do not translate, thereby emphasizing the foreign environment and the depths to which Martins feels lost. Film noir elements show up in an unexpected way: Martins becomes the anti-police officer, but unlike hard noirs where the tone is often dark and grim, The Third Man plays at humor, even when the story turns deadly. Be sure to follow the story to the very end for one of cinema’s ultimate disses. It is an ending that goes against the grain–and even the screenwriter’s desires.

    The Third Man endures with its reputation as a classic. It appears on a few of American Film Institute’s top 100 lists, and was selected by the British Film Institute as best British film of the 20th century. Upon its release, it won the Grand Prix at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. It also won the British Academy Award for Best Film and an Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography in 1950. The zither theme ("The Third Man Theme") went straight to the top of the charts upon its release, and the film has been featured as a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray (since out of print). It was re-released on Blu-Ray by Lions Gate in September 2010.

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