Active Ingredients: Eccentric and original style; Superb acting
Side Effects: Perhaps an overuse of canted angles
The mystery of a death that never happened and a tale of wartime horrors with no fighting, The Third Man is an offbeat noir that not only ignores the conventions of its era, but seems to be unaware of their existence. From the jaunty, anachronistic zither score to a barely-present main character, the film follows its own logic confidently and unwaveringly. The Third Man is remembered for its eccentricities, but it’s the remarkably solid core that keeps it all together.
The perpetually-overshadowed Joseph Cotton plays Holly Martins, a quintessential American writer of quintessentially crummy American dime novels. He’s a bit of a boar, an offscreen drunk and a fish-out-of-water with a nose for trouble. He has no business being in Vienna just as the ubiquitous dramatically-canted camera angles have no business dominating a standard thriller. Yet still, he sticks around, much to the chagrin of the Europeans, to locate the shadowy third man seen carrying the body of his friend, Harry Lime.
The figure of Harry Lime looms over the film like a ghost, a man whom everyone seems to have an opinion of and whose charm masks a hidden evil, and the great success of The Third Man is to vastly exceed the audience’s expectations when Orson Welles is revealed as the unctuous Harry Lime. Welles gives perhaps his greatest performance, stretching his impact far beyond his scant screentime. With only one, very memorable, scene, he gives us Harry Lime the sociopath, Harry Lime who would befriend anyone just to sell them out behind their back: Harry Lime the third man.
The greatness of Orson Welles aside, The Third Man might have been little more than a curio without its exhilarating pacing and evocative, gothic black and white cinematography, distilled into a thrilling climactic chase below the city streets, where dark figures dramatically punctuate the frame. As the action subsides and Welles disappears, however, we slowly come to realize it was the melancholy and longing of the overshadowed Holly Martins which drove the film all along, beautifully encapsulated in its final, devastating shot, one of the few squared frames in the entire film.