The Third Man is a classic British noir film known for its cinematography, most notably the dutch angles and dark, almost surreal atmosphere. It is considered by many to be the best British film of the 20th century and deservedly so. Its unique score was performed completely on the zither by Anton Karas, which became one of the standout aspects of the film, resulting in over a half million copies of "The Harry Lime Theme" sold and a spike in zither sales.
The story opens with the narrator setting the scene for us, post-war Vienna where the black market is thriving due to shortages on a variety of supplies. A man named Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), an author of western novels, has traveled to Vienna for a job offered to him by his school chum, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Shortly, Holly finds out from a porter working at Lime's residence that Harry was killed a few days earlier after having been struck by a truck right out in front of the building.
Holly seeks information surrounding the circumstances of his friend Harry's death and when the information he gets from Harry's close friends and associates (Kurtz, Popescu, and Dr. Winkel played by Ernst Deutsch, Sigfried Breuer, and Erich Ponto respectively) brings more questions than answers, he becomes convinced that Harry was murdered. He decides to dig deeper to not only prove Harry was murdered, but to clear his friend of the allegations of racketeering brought by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British Army Police officer. He is joined in his adventure by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Harry's actress girlfriend.
Unfortunately, Holly gets nowhere trying to extract information from Harry's friends, but things look up when the porter agrees to talk with him again. The porter had previously sworn that there was a third man that carried Harry away as he was dying, something that Kurtz, Popescu, and Dr. Winkel deny. But before Holly can talk to him later that evening, the porter is murdered and Holly is fingered as having argued with him earlier by an annoying little boy who witnessed the exchange. Holly escapes the mob that comes after him and hops in a cab, which whisks him through the streets to what he believes will be certain death. Turns out, the head of a local book club that had arranged boarding for Holly, and requested he speak at the club, had arranged for the cab to take him there.
While there, he fails to impress the club. But, Popescu is lurking in the back of the crowd and when he asks Holly if he is currently writing a book, Holly replies that he is and it's a murder mystery based on fact. Popescu suggests ominously that he should stick to fiction. Holly again fears for his life and flees.
He meets up again with Major Calloway who urges him, again, to leave Vienna. Holly refuses, wishing to clear his friend's name, so Calloway shows him all the damning evidence he has against Lime. Lime has been stealing penicillin from the military hospital with the help of an orderly, Joseph Harbin, who has gone missing. Harry has been diluting the penicillin to maximize his stock and selling it for a tidy sum on the black market. The weakened penicillin has resulted in several deaths, including children suffering from meningitis. Convinced of Lime's guilt, Holly finally agrees to leave.
I don't want to give any spoilers, so I won't describe the rest of the plot, except to say that Holly doesn't leave Vienna right away and there is plenty of intrigue, veiled threats, suspense, and a thrilling chase at the end.
I had seen The Third Man in bits and pieces before viewing it straight through for the first time. Even though I knew the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In the movie, Holly Martins is an author known for the tension and suspense in his novels. The same is true of the plot of this film. Despite its dark subject matter, The Third Man has moments of humor and mischief. It explores loyalty, friendship, love, betrayal, and the pursuit of truth, all in a matter of 104 minutes.
Harry Lime is a complex and delicious character. He's the type of villain I like best, the kind that you would expect to take great care of his friends one moment, then stab them in the back the next to protect his own skin. Likable, yet despicable, leaving you thoroughly conflicted.
Despite having a very limited amount of screen time, Orson Welles is the star of this film. There is no mistaking that. Everyone delivers solid performances, but from the minute Orson is first seen, the film is completely his.