The Third Man, later voted the best British film of the twentieth century by the British Film Institute, combined many elements of film noir with a decidedly Cold War sensibility to give shape to the post-World War II thriller. A gripping portrayal of the evils of greed and indifference to human suffering, it perfectly captured the feel of devastated postwar Europe, as well as featuring some of the finest black-and-white cinematography in film history.

Summary of Event

In February, 1948, Alexander Korda, a leading figure in the British film industry and the founder of London Films, asked novelist Graham Greene to write a film for him. The film was to be about the four-power (American, British, French, and Soviet) occupation of postwar Vienna, and it would be directed by Carol Reed, who had recently filmed Greene’s The Fallen Idol (1948). Greene visited Vienna and returned with the story that became the film treatment for The Third Man (1949). Korda drafted Hollywood producer David O. Selznick to coproduce the film. Selznick came on board, supplying a large part of the budget and providing some of his American stars. Third Man, The (Reed)
Film noir
[kw]Third Man Premiers, The (Sept. 3, 1949)
Third Man, The (Reed)
Film noir
[g]Europe;Sept. 3, 1949: The Third Man Premiers[02990]
[g]United Kingdom;Sept. 3, 1949: The Third Man Premiers[02990]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Sept. 3, 1949: The Third Man Premiers[02990]
[c]Cold War;Sept. 3, 1949: The Third Man Premiers[02990]
Reed, Carol
Greene, Graham
Cotten, Joseph
Welles, Orson
Korda, Alexander
Selznick, David O.
Valli, Alida
Karas, Anton
Krasker, Robert

Joseph Cotten—Selznick’s choice for the main role of Holly Martins—ended up playing the part. Originally, Greene had written the role for a British man, and Reed’s first choice for the role had been James Stewart. Selznick, however, pushed for Cotten and, though Reed accepted ambivalently, it wound up being an ostensibly wise decision. On the other hand, Reed pushed for Orson Welles to play Harry Lime, and Selznick fought him tooth and nail, insisting that casting Welles was certain disaster and instead pressing for Noël Coward. Reed won that argument. Alida Valli, one of Selznick’s contract stars, was cast as Anna Schmidt. Her part in the film, it seems, was never in question.

The film commenced shooting in Vienna in September, 1948. All of the exteriors and other location shots, including the amazing footage shot in Vienna’s famous sewers, were shot on a rigorous schedule over the next few months. Selznick had wanted Reed to shoot the film entirely in the studio, but Reed declined, insisting on shooting on location—a decision that significantly affected the look and feel of the film by giving a deep sense of occupied Vienna, a playground for racketeers. After the location shoots were concluded, the cast and crew returned to Shepperton Studios in England and finished shooting the film. Welles was displeased with the conditions he was expected to work under in Vienna and shot most of his footage (including the sewer footage) in England.

During production, director Carol Reed discovered self-taught zither player Anton Karas playing at a Vienna tavern where a party was being held for the cast and crew. Reed was so taken with Karas’s playing that he almost immediately decided to have him score and play for the sound track of The Third Man. Karas was essentially a musician-for-hire, and many challenged Reed’s decision to use him. Eventually, though, Reed won out, and Karas produced a haunting score that still resonates today.

The Third Man opened in London on September 3, 1949. Both a box-office and a critical success, it was almost universally accepted as a masterpiece. The film won the coveted Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949, a British Academy Award for Best British Film, and the U.S. Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Cinematography, Black-and-White[Best Cinematography, Black and White] for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, in 1950. In 1999, it was voted the best British film of the twentieth century by the British Film Institute. Significantly, Karas’s score was hailed as a sensation. “The Third Man’s Theme” Third Man’s Theme, The“ (Karas)[Third Mans Theme, The] (released on Decca in the United Kingdom and London Records in the United States) was perfect in the film and also became one of the top hits of 1950.

The Third Man begins with a voice-over prologue. In the original British version of the film, this prologue is provided by Carol Reed, acting as a local Vienna racketeer introducing the story of Holly Martins and Harry Lime, and it is highly effective. In the heavily truncated original American release of the film (a version that has been all but forgotten, except as a curiosity), Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins provides the narration to his own story. This was a device that David O. Selznick employed out of a fear that Martins simply was not likable enough, that he was far too seedy, and that Americans would not relate to him. Selznick cut more than eleven minutes from the film, a move that in retrospect exposed the clarity of Reed’s vision.

The film is an acknowledged masterpiece for several major reasons. Most notably, it represents the peak of Carol Reed’s impressive directorial career. His wise decisions (using Karas’s score, the against-the-grain ending, the casting of Welles, shooting on location) and his unforgettable, distinctive style Cinema;stylistic innovation
Cinema;cinematography (his brilliant use of oblique and wide angles, of light and shadows, of distortion) make the film what it is. With the help of Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, Reed crafted what is considered by many to be a perfect film.

Joseph Cotten gave arguably the best performance of his career as pulp-Western novelist Martins, bringing a defeated poise to the role that even James Stewart might not have pulled off as well. Welles also gives one of his best performances—certainly his best supporting performance—as Harry Lime. His time on screen is minimal, but everything he does and says is highly memorable, from his first appearance in the shadows to his speech to Martins on the Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park and the subsequent chase scenes in the seedy Vienna sewers.

Most significant, though, the film is a meditation on postwar corruption by men who knew intimately the destruction that Europe had suffered in the war. Reed, who had worked for the British army’s wartime documentary unit, and Greene, who had written often about spies and sometimes acted as one, perfectly embodied the weariness of occupied Vienna and all of postwar Europe. As with all of Greene’s work, the story was also a meditation on the nature of being. When Martins, devastated to discover that his friend is in fact the criminal that the police claim him to be, indicts Lime and suggests that he no longer believes in God, Lime says simply that he does still believe in God and the viewer is shaken into a moment of revelation. The Third Man is most certainly an expert thriller and a story of intrigue, but it is never merely these things.


A technical marvel, The Third Man was a landmark film in the history of cinema. It ushered in the second half of the bloodiest of centuries, predicting the paranoia of the Cold War and influencing a generation of filmmakers to deal honestly with serious matters in a unique way, instead of merely providing a candy-coated Hollywood vision of the world. There is no happy ending in The Third Man, no promise of victory, though the film is not without hope. Lime is revealed for what he is. Anna is loyal to him. Holly’s innocence is shattered, and he comes to understand the great web of responsibility, of complicity. He is a hero not unlike Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel All the King’s Men (also adapted for the screen). Hardened by experience, Holly has left has idealism behind.

Although there is no direct connection, seminal films of the 1960’s and 1970’s like The Graduate (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Badlands (1973), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) owe a great deal to The Third Man. Reed’s masterpiece taught future generations that one can make a film of intense restraint that explores life, faith, loyalty, grace, and responsibility without succumbing to cheap tricks. It also introduced technical innovations—Reed’s Expressionist visual style, particularly his use of light, shadow, angles, and seedy locations—that changed the way films were made. The Third Man celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1999, and the occasion was marked by the release of the Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD, which included a beautiful transfer of the film and excellent supplemental features. The film continues to have a tremendous impact on audiences worldwide. Third Man, The (Reed)
Film noir

Further Reading

  • Drazin, Charles. In Search of “The Third Man.” New York: Limelight Editions, 2000. Draws on recent documents and accounts of the people involved in the making of The Third Man to explore what production of the film was really like.
  • Greene, Graham. Preface to The Third Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Writer Graham Greene’s discussion of the novella and the film.
  • Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich. This Is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo, 1998. Interviews with star Orson Welles by the acclaimed director of Paper Moon (1973), Peter Bogdanovich.
  • White, Rob. The Third Man. BFI Film Classics. London: British Film Institute, 2003. An examination of The Third Man in the ongoing series by the British Film Institute, which voted it the best British film of the twentieth century.

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