Bombed streets and crumbling buildings huddle together in this post-war Vienna setting. From director Carol Reed, The Third Man follows the doubts of a man inquiring into the death of his friend. Swerving through these rubble-filled streets, leading man Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) struggles to wrap his mind around the death and potential murder of his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). An iconographic masterclass, a film that defines the era of its conception, The Third Man pulls out all the stops expected of a bigger budget crime film from the post-war period. Reflective of the atrocities, mingling dramatic tension and foul play with romance and goodhearted people setting off to do the right thing, this film has all the pieces desired by the genre.
More crucial and desirable than any other component, though, is a strong frontman for Reed’s story to ricochet off of. Cotten’s leading performance is tremendous. He spars well with a variety of characters, trading spiteful words and loving gestures, keeping up with the unfaltering support of Welles and Alida Valli. Although Welles’ screentime is limited, the impression he leaves on the story at large is, as expected, notably memorable. His presence ripples throughout, with Cotten’s distraught face burning through onto the film. Martins spends most of his time unaware of any major issues, and it’s not until the efforts of Anna Schmidt (Valli) help him piece it together that he gets any sense of misgiving.
Such evolution of story must be helmed by a filmmaker of great potential. Reed’s direction is marvellous. A creative mixture and charge of tilted camera angles, usual static shots and a grand sweeping movement that brings such natural brilliance to this story. With a reliance and faith in these leading characters, The Third Man thrives on some immaculate scriptwriting and reflective moments of brilliance. A slow-burning plot if there ever was one, the seeds of doubt planted early on, slowly growing and blossoming into an effective, memorable crime drama. Occasionally, the music won’t match up with the emotion on display. Acoustic giddiness at the grand reveal of such a horrifying twist is a rather odd mixture to make, but Reed is steadfast in his frequent use of music that matches the city, so its use is understandable, albeit one that may reveal a jarring scene or two.
Music is a frivolous complaint to make in such of an exciting bit of film. A climax well worth waiting for, The Third Man is a tightly written bit of thriller, bouncing a mystery off of several key moments and supporting characters. They flicker in and out often, more so than the imbalance of icy conversation and potential romance between the leads. Reed handles an abundance of red herrings, moments of foul play and completely unique twists, crafting a resolute and exceptionally well-made film.