Expressionism & Film Noir: The Third Man

Expressionism & Film Noir: The Third Man

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release date: October 11th 2010
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 100 minutes

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard

Often spoken of as the greatest British film ever made, The Third Man (1949) is directed by Carol Reed from a screenplay by author Graham Greene. It also features Orson Welles in what can only be described as one of the greatest entrances ever made on screen.

Set in post-war Vienna, American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives to visit his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) but when he gets to his apartment he is informed that there’s been an accident and Harry has been killed. Holly makes his way to the cemetery for the funeral and afterwards delays his return to America so he can find out more about the mysterious circumstances in which his friend died.

Each person he speaks to gives him a different version but Holly comes to the conclusion that there was a third man at the scene, the only thing is he can’t seem to figure out who it was.

Together with Harry’s girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), they try to uncover the mystery man’s identity, but when Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) from the British Army Royal Military Policemen informs him that Harry was a black market drug racketeer responsible for many deaths, Holly is forced to ask himself if he really knew his friend.

From its opening scene through to its finale, The Third Man is typically film noir with strong hints of expressionism.

Here we have the hard-boiled detective, Holly Martins, trying to solve a case. He might not be an actual detective, but his mission is the same; to uncover the truth about his friend Harry. He follows his leads and stalks the streets looking for clues.

Through the crumbling alleyways, half-lit rooms and labyrinthine sewers we follow our detective around post-war Vienna which in itself is a rich source for film noir and expressionist architecture and lighting. Though the city and its residents were still recovering from the effects of war, Dilys Powell notes in her review for Britain To-Day (dated November 19th 1949):

“The designer of the sets, Vincent Korda, has with his assistants skilfully captured the feeling of Viennese baroque; and one must not overlook the fine work of Robert Krasker, whose photography, both descriptive and narrative, is of a very high order indeed.”

We also have the woman who draws him further into the mystery, the femme fatale Anna who is keen to hide her own secrets. It’s not all doom and gloom though as the film contains genuine moments of humour such as when the child cries murder and leads a lynch mob after Holly!

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To top it all off, the score is played on a zither by Anton Karas who was an unknown wine bar performer. In a smart move by Reed, he chose not have a fully blown orchestra but instead enlisted Karas who had fascinated him the jangling melancholy of his music. The Third Man Theme was even released as single and went on become a hit on its own, sending fans into “a dither with his zither”.

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