The Third Man: a Film with Style

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Updated: Aug 17, 2022
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The Third Man: a Film with Style essay

The Third Man (1949) has been said to be one of the best British films of all time (Whitington, F. P). The Third Man follows a unique story in post-World War II Vienna, focusing on the writer, Holly Martins (portrayed by Joseph Cotton), who travels to meet Henry Lime (Portrayed by Orson Wells), who unexpectedly passed away before Holly Martins arrival. The movie also stars Alida Valli as Lime’s loyal girlfriend and Holly Martin’s love interest, Anna (Macnab, G.). The Third Man portrays a unique dark and mysterious story that has all the stylings of a film noir and themes and production of a neorealist movie; The Third Man is a product of the time it was produced, by looking at the context to its production, we are able to analyze the many influences that made it the wonderful film that can be shown today.

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, was a very prominent post-war British film. The movie was originally written as a novella based on Greene’s firsthand knowledge obtained when working for the British during the war and on-site research in Vienna (Sinowitz, Michael). The Third Man was produced by British Lions Films. The Third Man was heavily influenced by Orson Welles, who plays the villain within the film, and often the use of dramatic lighting and canted angle shots are attributed to his style (Thompson, Kristin, Page 355). Some critics attribute much of the stylistic choices of the film to Orson Welles, however, the style of Carol Reed is very prominent within this film when compared with her other work (Whitington, F. P). The film explores Vienna after World War II, a city that had been split into English, French, American, and Soviet districts, and with some persuasion Greene was able to shoot on location in Vienna (Macnab, G.). The film was fairly low budget, but was still very successful.

The film has aspects of a British detective movie with the writer, Holly Martins, playing the role as detective. After Holly arrives in Vienna and learns that his friend and future employer, Harry, died in a street accident, Holly becomes suspicious. Primarily going off a hunch, Holly begins to investigate the sudden death of his friend, even though the British major suggests that Harry Lime was involved in criminal activity and was better off dead. Holly discovers that all though only two men testified on the crime, there was reportedly a third man that did not testify. Holly’s goal after this is to find the third man, who could have been anyone, even just a random stranger from the streets. After meeting Harry’s lover and learning more about the accident, Holly Martins discovers Harry is still alive. After discovering that Harry’s crime of diluting penicillin and reselling it resulted in the death of many children, Holly halfheartedly decides to work with the authorities to track down Harry Lime, much to Anna’s disapproval. After a long chase through the sewers of Vienna, Harry is caught and shot to death by his friend, Holly. Harry’s Lover, who Holly is pursuing as a love interest, cannot forgive Holly and walks by him and out of his life at the conclusion of the film.

Postwar modernism is often associated with realism, something The Third Man captures very well (Thompson, Kristin). Filming on location, leaving the relationship between Holly and Anna without resolution, and taking a pessimistic view on life and crime make this film appear realistic to the audience. Pairing these common themes of realism with the aesthetics of a film noir, makes this film very unique. The Third Man’s style can be described as film noir because of its pessimistic outlook as well as its use of dramatic lighting and unbalanced composition (Thompson, Kristin).; however, the Third Man is far from a typical film noir, as one reviewer said,

It’s hard to think of a more distinctive and boldly original movie than The Third Man. Filmed on a tight budget in post-war Vienna during the winter of 1948, Carol Reed’s woozy thriller might have turned out to be a run-of-the-mill film noir were it not for the happy collision of some extraordinary talents (Clem.).

The Third Man reflects post-war reality as it shows a struggle with crime and a government not capable of handling it in a proper way. The film appears very dark and dingy, all leading up to the climatic chase scene within the sewers.

The film industry in England began changing around the time of World War II, not long before The Third Man was produced. The number of films produced declined during the war because studio facilities turned to military use, however, a high wartime attendance boosted the industry and allowed the major film companies—The Rank Organization, and Associated British Picture Corporation—to expand their domain (Thompson, Kristin, Page 354). The Rank Organization had connection in America and English films started to enter the United States more regularly, allowing for The Third Man to find an audience in the United States as well as England. As one reviewer says,

This is a full-blooded, absorbing story adapted from book by Graham Greene, which reflects credit on all concerned. With international quartet of stars it should draw anywhere, and its appeal in the U. S. should equal that of London.

As production prices rose, Hollywood films demanded eighty percent of screen time. In order to tackle this problem, the British government imposed a seventy-five percent tax on imported American films which ultimately failed due to the threat of boycott from American film producers (Thompson, Kristin, Page 354). A compromise was attempted that would enforce quotas that required forty-five percent (later it would be moved down to thirty percent) of all films in Britain to be British films (Thompson, Kristin, Page 354). The final solution, the “Eady levy”, reduced the entertainment tax on theater tickets but added a levy against ticket sales that benefitted producers. While the Eady levy remained for several decades, the industry continued to decline as competition with television increased (Thompson, Kristin, Page 354).

The Third Man (1949) has been said to be one of the best British films of all time, however, it is not a typical British film (Whitington, F. P). This film draws from classic British detective influences, post-war realism, and the film noir to achieve a new type of crime/detective movie. The movie was heavily influenced by World War II in both the plot and choices in production to make the movie appear more real. The dark and tense streets of Vienna also help provide the dark mysterious feel needed to portray a film noir detective movie. The Third Man portrays a unique story that has all the stylings of a film noir and themes and production of a neorealist movie; The Third Man is a product of the time it was produced, low budget because of a struggling industry, dark and harsh because of the after-war trends, and full of pessimism.

Work Cited

Thompson, Kristin; Thompson, Kristin. Film History: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Kindle Edition.
Sinowitz, Michael. ‘Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man : When a Cowboy Comes to Vienna.’ MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 53 no. 3, 2007, pp. 405-433. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.2007.0069
Whitington, F. P. (2015, Jun 27). Our man in Vienna: Making ‘the third man’. Irish \ Independent Retrieved from
Macnab, G. (2006, Aug 11). Film & music: Film reviews: The third man 5/5 director: Carolreed with: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles 104 mins, cert PG. The Guardian Retrieved from
Clem. (1949, Sep 07). Film review: The third man. Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 175, 11. Retrieved from 

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