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The Third Man still thrills 65 years later
In scene from “The Third Man,” Joseph Cotten plays pulp novelist, Holly Martins. - photo by twm1340

‘The Third Man’

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli

Running time: 93 minutes

After nearly two years of writing this column, I finally decided to dive into film noir. And I picked a doozy.

“The Third Man” is a 1949 Academy Award-winning crime drama with a laundry list of talent attached to it. The screenplay was written by the famous novelist Graham Greene. Academy Award-winning director Carol Reed was behind the camera directing the actors. Finally, prolific actress Alida Valli played the leading lady opposite of Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, who are famous for “Citizen Kane.”

“The Third Man” takes place in Vienna shortly after World War II. Holly Martins (Cotten), a two-bit Western writer from the United States, arrives by train to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Welles), who offered him a job. But his plans fall to pieces when he discovers his friend was killed a few days earlier. Though Lime’s death was ruled an accident, Martins is questioned by the police, who claim Lime ran a penicillin racket that supposedly killed several “patients.”

Determined to clear his friend’s name and get to the bottom of his death, Martins begins his own investigation. He tracks down Lime’s former lover, actress Anna Schmidt (Valli), and both begin questioning Lime’s acquaintances. However, the testimonies don’t match. Instead of the official story, which claimed Lime was hit by a car and carried off by two friends, Martins discovers a mysterious third man was present at the scene.

Martins tries to track down the third man, but everything goes sideways. Witnesses turn up murdered. At night, Martins is tailed by a shadowy figure who eventually disappears into the sewer system. Then the British take extra interest in the case when one of Lime’s former partners-in-crime disappears.

During all of this, Martins begins to fall in love with Schmidt, who is still fiercely devoted to Lime despite his death. When the investigation turns up evidence Lime may have actually been involved with the penicillin racket, Martins and Schmidt’s relationship begins to sour. But when the Russians come to repatriate Schmidt, Martins does everything to save her.

While the story of “The Third Man” is great, the film really shines in its cinematography, which it won an Academy Award. The bombed out and politically divided Vienna is beautiful and sinister. Once ornate buildings are now crumbling, piles of rubble sit next to grand statues and most Austrians are struggling to survive while the various Allied superpowers are jockeying for control. The final scene of the movie is a beautiful view of a winter Vienna boulevard with leaves falling all around as Schmidt slowly walks toward the camera.

The musical score is entirely composed of the zither, a stringed instrument traditionally played in Austria and surrounding regions. Even though it is just the one instrument, the music adds a variety of tones to the scenes. Sometimes it is festive, which can be at odds with the dreary scenery. But other times it is completely terrifying, similar to the screeching noises in “The Shining.” After watching the movie, the music is instantly recognizable.

While I have no other experience with film noir, “The Third Man” thoroughly impressed me. I am a sucker for mystery and intrigue, and this movie has it in droves. I cannot wait to further explore the genre.

“The Third Man” is available on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99-$14.99.

Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at

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