The titles fade in over the vibrating strings of a zither, playing a joyful ditty that is sure to get stuck in your head long after you’ve finished the film. The song is titled “The Harry Lime Theme”, and it initially seems out of place when contrasted with the setting of post-war Vienna, shot in all of its black and white cynicism. Our main protagonist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), is a moderately jarring caricature of American conceit. A writer of Western pulp novels and adorning all of the archetypal features of a modern-day cowboy, Martin’s is invited to Vienna by his old friend Harry Lime for a job (Orson Welles), only to discover that he is dead. What ensues is a cat and mouse chase to find the mysterious ‘third man’ present at Harry’s death, a quest that mirrors the plot of one of Martin’s own novels.
Whilst the narrative features many of the classic film noir motifs, The Third Man also subverts the narrative into a playful game where the city becomes as much, if not more, of an essential character as those that inhabit it.
The setting and visuals of The Third Man are arguably more integral to the narrative than some of the minor plots. With high contrast shadows and luring buildings that guard over the city, the idea of overwhelming chaos and absence is created: a theme that will translate more so through the presence and vacancy of Harry Lime throughout. The city acts to both cloak and exposes elements of mystery, with sharp angles disorientating the viewer amidst the chase. Director Carol Reed has taken clear inspiration from German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, where camera angles simultaneously flatten the image yet create a perspective that throws you off balance. This, coupled with the theme song that creeps up on you repeatedly, displaces the dejection of post-war Europe, thus playing with the genre in a way that seems significantly ahead of its time.
The star of our film, Orson Welles, only graces our screens for a mere five minutes, though his presence is undoubtedly felt throughout. At the climax of the plot, Martins and Lime are reunited on a city Ferris Wheel. In this scene, we see the famous use of the Dutch angle combined with fast motion shots, which disorientate the viewer and reflect the imbalance of power dynamics between the two men. Holly confronts Lime about the truth of what happens, and we learn that Harry had passed a batch of bad penicillin that lead to the death of many people. A personal story of ethics and morality unfolds, though we realise it is the city’s immorality that allowed Harry to hide in plain sight the whole time. Whether this is a critique on post-war Europe is unclear; however, there is something that still urges the viewer to root for Harry, despite his seedy wrongdoings.
You can see why The Third Man has become a classic. It is an early example of how harmonisation of narrative and visuals can create something significantly innovative for its time. Intriguing, haunting and satisfying for any cinephile to watch – it will leave you remembering why you love movies so much.