Carol Reed’s post-war thriller is often held up as being an example of film noir, and it certainly shares many stylistic elements with the nascent American genre of the time: a central mystery – namely regarding the whereabouts of enigmatic rackateer Harry Lime (Orson Welles); the striking chiaroscuro, most notably employed when figures are backlit, with huge shadows cast on exterior walls; a woman (Alida Valli) who, though you wouldn’t exactly describe her as a femme fatale, certainly doesn’t have a straightforward relationship with the nearest thing The Third Man has to a hero (Joseph Cotten, playing a pulp western writer); and a brooding sense of fatalism, which slowly increases as the story progresses and leads eventually to the doomy sequences set in Vienna’s sewer network.
The Austrian city is divided here into four quarters: French, British, Soviet and American, reflecting the four occupying forces as the Fifties approached. There’s a sense of chaos and oppportunity that has attracted various ne’er-do-wells, and Reed emphasises the sense of things being off kilter by his regular use of Dutch angles, best employed when characters are shot from below in close-up. (Welles himself had already used the device with Citizen Kane, and would use it again brilliantly in Touch Of Evil.) The music – Anton Karas’s famous theme/earworm, played on a zither – adds a slight sense of fun to proceedings, but also underscores the fact that all is not well in Vienna, and people are up to no good.
There might be a fairly obvious and slightly cringeworthy message here in the use of a main English character (played by Trevor Howard) whose job is to tell the visiting Americans what’s what, and it’s interesting that Howard’s Major Calloway is the one character who can be said to have the moral high ground; revelations late in the film support his withering dismissals of Lime, while others remain loyal to the charismatic, enigmatic American. There’s much to enjoy here, not least the appearance of Welles two-thirds of the way through; it’s like the movie gets a sudden injection of adrenaline when he first steps out of the shadows, a grin forming ever-so-slightly on his the edge of his mouth. One of the all-time great supporting performances, and one that initiates a finale that brings further confusion to characters trying to negotiate their way through an already-foggy series of events. And does the ending allude to a general, ungrateful rejection of America across Europe, with the Second World War over and their help no longer needed? (*****)