Masterpieces of World Cinema: Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1950), Starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli

The Third Man, Carol Reed’s third masterpiece in a row, following “Odd Man Out” and “The Fallen Idol,” is a gripping, multi-layered thriller that reflected the ambience of the cynical political arrangements in post WWII Vienna.
The Third Man
The Third Man (1949 American theatrical poster).jpg

American theatrical release poster

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Joseph Cotten plays American novelist Holly Martins, who arrives in bleak Vienna, having been promised a job by his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). However, upon arrival, Martins is informed that Lime is dead, having been killed in an accident; his body s about to be lowered into the grave.

American Poster

 Martin attends the funeral, where he meets a mysterious woman named Anna Schmidt (Italian actress Alida Valli), Lime’s former lover. While inquiring of his friend’s past, Martins finds out from British officer Calloway (Trevor Howard) that Lime was a racketeer. Deeply upset, he’s determined to clear Lime’s reputation of criminal conduct by conducting an investigation on his own. The ensuing noirish tale centers on a forceful examination of friendship and loyalty is the face of social duties and political obligations.

Was the film’s coherence and overall impact a happy accident of fruitful collaboration between British director Reed, screenwriter Graham Greene, cinematographer Robert Krasker, editor Oswald Hafendrichter, and actors Cotten, Welles, and Valli, not to neglect the role of producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda?   It’s hard to think of many other movies in which all the elements of filmmaking fit in together so well. “The Third Man” was deservedly nominated for three Oscars: Director for Reed (a second nod after “The Fallen Idol”), cinematography, and editing.

It’s also hard to think of a film in which Welles’ appearance, though late in the game, is more haunting and memorable, a result of Greene’s shrewd script and Welles’ own acting. Welles was responsible for his own scenes and he gives an enigmatic performance that’s both haunting and electric. His first appearance, after many references are made about him, is a great entrée.

Strangely enough, Welles was not the first choice for the role. The playwright and actor Noel Coward was first thought of. It was not easy to persuade Welles to take the role, and it was even harder to convince him to do the famous chase in Vienna’s sewers. It was Welles who wrote the colorful and renowned speech about the Swiss Cuckoo Clock. In the end, Welles gives Harry Lime more charm than Greene intended in the script.

Krasker, Britain’s greatest cinematographer at the time, was reportedly open to some of the ideas suggested by Welles. The film’s visual style, with its sharp angles, low and high-camera positions bears resemblance to that of “Citizen Kane.”

The movie shows an ideological and tonal strain between Green’s bleak attitude (the whole notion of poisoned penicillin for children) and the urge to give viewers a more hopeful story.

“The Third Man” is effective as psychological mystery, offering one of the most intense atmospheres onscreen. It also provides a tour de force of Vienna: you can smell the sewers, the fear, the mistrust, all by-products of WWII and its aftermath

Joseph Cotten is also well cast as the “Ugly American Abroad,” Brit Trevor Howard lends edge and sympathy to the role of the inspector, and Italian Valli’s is both poignant and mysterious.


Reed’s mise-en-scene has never been more astute and multi-nuanced, from the thrilling chase through the sewers to the accusations of the little boy to the quieter romantic moments. The film is replete of superlative scenes, such as the one on the Ferris Wheel, which exemplifies cinema as a collaborative art at its very best.


It’s worth describing the first meeting scene between Lime and Martins. Holly goes to Kurtz and Popesco and tells them to have Lime meet him at the Ferris wheel in the Prater, Vienna’s famous amusement park. The once merry pleasure ground, a ghost of its own self, has still not recovered from the war’s devastation. Weeds push up around the foundations of the carousel. In a bleak autumn afternoon, only a few people are in the park. However, the great Ferris Wheel is still running, and they meet in a ride that will take them high above the city. Lime’s first words are: “It’s grand to see you, Holly.”


The film’s fadeout is also unforgettable in its poignancy and originality. Lime is buried for the second time, and for the second time, Martins is driven from the cemetery by Calloway. As they ride down the dreary strip of road, Martins seems Anna walking back from the graveyard.

“One can’t just leave,” he says and gets out. Off in the distance, like a faraway train seen down the ties of a railroad, Anna first looks like a dot, then a shadow, and finally a woman.


In a typical Hollywood movie, there would be the embrace and kiss, but not in this picture. Martins had been Lime’s friend for what he has imagined him to be, but Anna has loved him for what he really was, and she can’t forgive Martins for betraying his friend, even if her own freedom has been bought by the 30 pieces of silver.

In the bitter, ironic, and amazingly coherent ending, Anna walks scornfully past Martins, without a word or a look. Avoiding his confused and unbelieving eyes, she leaves Martins standing alone, amidst leafless trees of winter, as a totally bankrupt person, with no money, job, or friend.

It’s worth noting that in Greene’s version, Anna takes Martin’s arm, and together they walk off from the cemetery.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Director: Carol Reed
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Editing: Oswald Halfenrichter

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz for “All About Eve,” which swept that year’s awards.

 The editing Oscar went to Ralph E. Winters and Conrad A. Nervig for “King’s Solomon’s Mines.”

Lines to Remember

Harry Lime mocking Swiss culture:

“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo De Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”


Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins
Alida Valli (credited as Valli) as Anna Schmidt
Orson Welles as Harry Lime
Trevor Howard as Major Calloway
Paul Hörbiger as Karl, Lime’s porter (credited as Paul Hoerbiger)
Ernst Deutsch as “Baron” Kurtz
Erich Ponto as Dr. Winkel
Siegfried Breuer as Popescu
Hedwig Bleibtreu as Anna’s old landlady
Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine
Wilfrid Hyde-White as Crabbin


Directed by Carol Reed
Produced by Carol Reed, Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick

Screenplay by Graham Greene
Narrated by Carol Reed (UK version)
Joseph Cotten (US version)
Music by Anton Karas
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter

Production company London Films

Distributed by British Lion Film Corporation (UK); Selznick Releasing Organization (US)

Release date: September 1, 1949 (UK);  February 2, 1950 (US)

Running time: 108 minutes
Country: UK

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