Home > Sunday Screening Films > Sunday Screening #2: The Third Man

Sunday Screening #2: The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)
Directed by: Carol Reed
Starring: Some guy…

Apologies to Paul for deleting his text, but the message will remain: indeed, The Third Man is our next screening.  I’ve seen this film before, but I’ll hold off discussing it and voicing an opinion until after the rewatch.  I love the excuse to view films again because there is so much new stuff to see.  It’s arguable that the first viewing isn’t representative of the experience because you are so wrapped up in plot that you don’t experience the rest of the film fully (I happen to support that point).  I’m really looking forward to reading what you all have to say about The Third Man because it is vastly different from our first screening.  Perhaps the thing I’ll be most interested in hearing about is the reaction to the famous zither score.  I hope everyone enjoys the experience!


  1. johnwm1
    November 17, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    I’m looking forward to the chance of seeing Lawrence of Arabia for Sunday Screenings sometime, since I’ve always meant to watch that film. But, I’m also really glad that we’ll be discussing The Third Man. It’s one of my top favorites from the classic era of movies. I’ll definitely have a lot to say about this great film.

  2. johnwm1
    November 22, 2009 at 10:39 PM

    So, The Third Man. When I first saw it, I’ll admit I wasn’t too impressed by it. At the time, I thought Harry Lime’s character was introduced much too late in the film, and I didn’t like the romantic backstory.

    While I still am not entirely convinced by the romantic backstory (the audience isn’t really given enough reason to believe why Anna is so taken with Lime), and do wish there was just another scene or two with Lime, my opinion of the film has improved so much so that I think it’s one of the top two or three best examples of film noir, and of films of its time period overall.

    From beginning to end, the film is wonderfully downbeat. It paints a very tangible portrait of post-WWII Vienna in all of its desperation and seediness. This is often done through the introduction of very memorable supporting characters. Really, the cast is amazing, with performances that, similar to Casablanca, bring out the personalities of the characters in vivid detail, no matter how small the role is in the context of the story.

    Driving the story is an absorbing mystery that takes many twists and turns, and always manages to surprise me even though I’ve seen the film plenty of times. The dialogue is cleverly written; plenty of memorable scenes (one of my favorites is when Kurtz and Martins discuss Lime’s disappearance with double meanings) and humorous character moments (“I’m English, not Irish.”), thanks to Graham Greene’s great screenplay.

    The selective use of tilted camera angles, while not appreciated at the time, is a great touch that heightens the tension and unease that Martins feels. The prominent use of the zither music is a very nice touch; it’s the soul of the film and complements the dark tone very well.

    This is just a very quick rundown of some of the main things I like about the film. Looking forward to others’ comments and going more in-depth.

    • November 22, 2009 at 11:07 PM

      It seems we were writing at the same time, so I kind of comment on some things you bring up below. I’m glad to see that we picked up on some of the same stuff and made similar connections.

      I have no problem with the relationship between Lime and Anna. I don’t feel the viewer needs to know why she has the connection she has because it would slow down the stories momentum. Instead of going forward, you’d have to have a few conversations about their history, which is really secondary to the story anyway. We know she has her reasons, and that’s good enough for me. I also think there is a magnetism about Lime that is implicit in the way Martins moved to Vienna to work with him, even though some of their past encounters were a bit tumultuous (I believe Martins was left at a raid while Lime had an escape route planned, or something like that).

      Is the double meaning scene you speak of when Martins is doing his literary Q&A, because I love that scene, too. I also love that Calloway doesn’t believe Martins’ reply to “what happened to your finger?” “Parrot bit me.”

      It would be interesting to go through and note when the tilted camera is being used in relation to Martins’ state of mind.

      • johnwm1
        November 24, 2009 at 8:32 AM

        I definitely agree that Lime just has this powerful, dark charisma about him, which is the main reason why he’s such an interesting character. It goes a long way in supporting why all these people – his friend, his lover – find him so appealing.

        Yes, the literary Q&A is the scene I referred to. I love how Kurtz, who appeared to be so gregarious, starts to act threatening toward Martins in a somewhat unsettling way. There are so many secrets and instances of duplicity in this film, part of the reason why I find it so engrossing.

      • johnwm1
        November 24, 2009 at 10:52 AM

        I meant to type Popescu, not Kurtz. Got those two names mixed up. Sorry for the confusion.

        • November 24, 2009 at 12:13 PM

          No worries, I kind of forgot which was which and just went along for the ride.

          I also think the context for their confrontation is great, which is in a group of intellectuals leaving because Holly doesn’t know anything and Crabbin just trying to save face. It’s such a fun counterpoint to what Holly and Popescu are discussing in code.

  3. November 22, 2009 at 10:58 PM

    Let’s get this shindig started!

    It’s tough to watch The Third Man without having Citizen Kane echoing in the back of your mind. As Peter Bogdanovich says in the intro on the DVD, The Third Man wouldn’t have been possible without Kane, they are so stylistically similar. Aside from the look of the film, The Third man also makes use of both Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, Welles’ love interest is an actress, and perhaps most glaring, the first hour is spent as a quest to find out who Harry Lime was and how he died with different points of view that keep it all shrouded in mystery. However, I find The Third Man to be far more satisfying than Kane.

    Cotton makes for a great lead and his chemistry with the main peripheral characters is amazing. His relationship with Calloway reminds me of that between Rick and Louis and the interactions between he and Anna is played perfectly, alternating between near love and hate. But probably the best dialogue scene is in the ferris wheel between Cotton and Welles. The history between the two men is on full display in the ease in which they trade lines.

    The film is amazing to look at with its playful use of shadows and space. I probably could have done with a few less dutch angles, but they don’t really distract. But there is a lot of subtlety that one may not catch the first time through (side discussion: do you think that overly stylized filmmaking is irresponsible in that it distracts from the story? Can a shot be TOO interesting or “directed”?). I love the way Anna’s lonely walk from Lime’s grave is echoed from the first funeral. I love that Martins almost dies in the same way Lime supposedly died when he sees Lime across the street. Martins’ complete obliviousness and callousness to the politics of Vienna and war-torn Europe is great to behold. I also think it’s really interesting that not only does the film not have a happy ending, but Holly and Anna don’t end up together at all (I’m using all sorts of names and surnames, I hope I’m not losing anyone).

    Add to that the great chases through the streets of Venice (does anybody live in the city? It’s so empty) and in the sewers and I find very little not to like about The Third Man.

    What did you guys think of the zither score? I have trouble deciding if I really like it and it sets the film apart from others like it or if it’s inappropriate for the subject matter.

    Lastly, I think it’s a shame that we all know that Orson Welles is Harry Lime and alive (hell, he’s on the cover of the DVD I have). I can’t help but wonder if I would have figured it out or if it would have been a big surprise had I not known about Welles. Was anyone surprised by his appearance?

  4. Marty
    November 23, 2009 at 11:33 AM

    I have to say that did not like the zither score. I applaud it for being different, and I have to concede that all too often musical cues are used to force an emotional response from the audience. However, music does create an emotional response, and I found that the score didn’t mesh well with the emotional underpinnings of the scenes. As well, I’m all for counterpoint, but I didn’t find that the music contrasted what was going on in a meaningful manner. It felt out of place, even comedic at moments. Perhaps I’m just too conditioned by the current state of music in film, but either way it didn’t work for me.

    As for the rest of the film, I was impressed most by Orson Welles’ performance, and the chase scene through the sewers at the end of the film. I found that Lime’s charisma and the relish with which he seems to be enjoying his “death” makes him a far more interesting character than Martins. But then again, doesn’t Welles always steal the show?

    The chase scene at the end, and the other noir trappings I found to be executed at a really high level. I echo the earlier praise of the use of shadows and space. The Vienna of the film really is one where anyone could be hiding around the corner, in the shadows, for some nefarious purpose. I enjoyed the use of dutch angles. While I think they are overused today by film students who are trying too hard to be “edgy”, the stylized look seems to have fallen out of use in modern crime films in favor of a more documentary style. With what Nate said earlier, I think it is possible that a shot can be overstylized or overdirected, but I did not find that be the case here.

    • November 23, 2009 at 2:16 PM

      Since the first thing you touch on is the music, I’ll ask this here. Is there a French New Wave film that copies the music from The Third Man? I swear somewhere along the way I saw a film (I’m thinking maybe something Truffaut did) that uses basically the same music, but the film is more of a light love story, so the music fits better. I couldn’t get behind the music as part of this film. On the Criterion DVD one of the special features is seeing the composer playing the zither. It cuts away to women, apparently listening to it, who don’t seem to understand what it is. I felt the same way while the music played in the film. They set-up the music as such a big “character” in the opening credits, only it doesn’t really do much but take away from the film in my opinion.

      I agree with both that Lime is more interesting then Martin, and that Welles more then likely always stole the show. I felt that Martin was a lacklustre protagonist, who kind of bumbled through the film. I felt that this lack of a solid, meaningful protagonist was one of the things that made this movie fall apart before my eyes. I still think that Welles is the best part of Transfomers: The Movie.

      I thought the chase scene was adequately composed and shot, but I just really didn’t care what happened. Lime was apparently a bad man, but the film doesn’t do enough so that we actually want him to be tried for his crimes, it just sort of glosses over events like this in order to spend more time with pointless side-characters and a story of unrequited love between Holly and Anna. I would have liked it if more time was spent making Lime the villain, so that we wanted him captured as the finale. As it is, I felt that it was just the next step in the script.

      • November 23, 2009 at 3:12 PM

        I also found the music to be more suited to a straight comedy at times, but then again, I find The Third Man to be quite funny, so I’m not too taken aback by it.

        I’m very sad to hear the Holly Martins hate. I feel that the bumbling nature of his character adds a great deal to the film. He’s oblivious to the politics of Vienna. He goes to the wrong people at the wrong time. He’s hopelessly optimistic about being able to woo Anna. He’s outmatched by everyone in every way and winds up killing the man who brought him to Vienna. He’s like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, who is always a step behind the mystery.

        Lime’s a “bad man,” but it’s tough to show war profiteering in a really menacing way. Especially when the profiteer is as charismatic as Welles. I can see what you mean that we don’t really desire for Lime to be caught, but isn’t part of what noir is about? The good guys are flawed, the bad guys aren’t necessarily so bad.

        And I have no idea what you refer to with the new wave zither. Sorry to be of no help.

      • johnwm1
        November 24, 2009 at 11:45 AM

        I’ve seen a number of Truffaut films but don’t recall if there was one with a zither-like score. But I haven’t seen enough French New Wave films, outside of Truffaut.

        My take on Martins is in my long post below, but I agree with Nate that he’s a great protagonist in this film. His flaws make him a bit of an everyman, which in my mind works well since we’re supposed to identify with him.

        Transformers: The Movie has some pretty solid voice acting (e.g., Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack). That it was Welles’ last contribution to film is a bit sad, but I agree his (artificially deepened) voice is very entertaining.

    • johnwm1
      November 24, 2009 at 8:52 AM

      As far as the zither score is concerned, I just think it’s the kind of music I’d expect somebody playing in one those dark corners in post-WWII Vienna, by some down-and-out guy who needs the money. It’s almost like “found” music. For me, it works, because it helps you immerse yourself into the story and the world of the characters much better than many other more traditional music choices would have. It’s hard to say this objectively after the fact, but anything resembling an orchestral sound would’ve been inappropriate for this film. It would’ve detracted from the dark, dismal tone and sense of authenticity in the story. When I first heard the music, it definitely stuck out in my mind because it was so unique (and film music generally shouldn’t draw too much or needless attention to itself), but now it’s one of my favorite aspects of the film.

      That being said, the choice of having no music during the climactic chase scene is excellent. It heightens the tension and desperation inherent in that gripping scene. In a way, the music for the scene are the sound effects, in particular the echo-y shouts, running footsteps and splashing puddles that I can hear clearly now even as I type this.

      • November 24, 2009 at 12:20 PM

        I like your assessment of the score. I think my reluctance to it (though I do more or less like it) is that it reminds me of the Monty Python “Cheese Shop” sketch where a bouzouki is playing the whole time, ever increasing in volume and speed, much to John Cleese’ chagrin. The similar sound to the instruments takes me right into the sketch. Not really The Third Man’s fault, but a hurdle nonetheless.

  5. November 23, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    I started reading the comments, and then decided that I would write some of my own thoughts before I really delved into everyone else’s thoughts…mainly because I see that I may be the counter point to this film.

    I didn’t like The Third Man. I felt that the plot was weak and uninteresting and that the characters were more annoying then anything else. Holly annoyed me, I felt he was a weak protagonist. Anna was far from the classic Noir Femme Fatale, and more a love-sick puppy. And I can’t imagine that audience at the time didn’t know that Welles was Lime. Much like I knew prior to watching this Sunday (which can account for a portion of my dislike, but not all of it). This movie just didn’t interest me in the least. I was bored through most of it.

    The story is based on the classic Hitchcockian McGuffin. Which didn’t work because of that fact that I don’t think anyone didn’t have a pretty good hunch that Welles was Lime going into the movie, the film didn’t do much of anything to disguise that fact. I was annoyed by minor characters who were just there to forward the weak plotline. The whole thing just felt like it was poorly written. Characters were weak, uninteresting, and did little beyond reveal their little tidbit of the “mystery”. You could have done so much more with any of the characters. Couple that with the fact that I could care less what Holly was doing. The McGuffin only works when it is a mystery and something that pulls the story along, and I felt that it failed in this film. I felt that Holly’s desire to find out what really happened was pretty weak, and that he himself really didn’t care that much about what had gone on, he was more or less sticking around to try and pick up Anna.

    Technically I thought that minus the over use of the dutch angles, the film looked decent, much of which is due to the digital cleaning up of the negatives. The edits seemed to flow, with none seeming out of place. The sound design was adequate. The lighting was probably the most Film Noir piece of The Third Man. I thought that Welles performance was good, not that he has many outings that weren’t. I couldn’t get around the music though, which just felt out of place most of the time. I felt that it was an inappropriate soundtrack for the seriousness that was post-war Vienna and the world this movie was taking place in.

    I know that many feel this film is important, but I guess I didn’t really grasp why, I’m hoping that some of you can enlighten me. I didn’t enjoy this film, and I felt it was a poor example of Film Noir (going off my admittedly limited exposure to the sub-genre). I mean, it’s black and white, and there is a bit of a mystery, but I didn’t really see any of the qualities that I think of as defining of the sub-genre. I would almost say that I see it as a sort of non-comedic parody of a film noir.

    • johnwm1
      November 24, 2009 at 11:29 AM

      On the one hand, I’m a little bummed that you found so much in the movie to dislike—as film fans, being able to share appreciation for favorite films with others is a lot of fun—but on the other hand, I’m glad that Sunday Screenings has its first discussion with clearly contrasting opinions. I feel like that’s one of the main advantages of having a site like this: trading different points of view.

      First, let’s look at the whole film noir thing. When I think of film noir, I basically think of the movie Double Indemnity (another movie I absolutely love): a femme fatale, a hardboiled male protagonist, murder, deception, intrigue, etc. I don’t think The Third Man fits into this classic Hollywood definition of film noir. The Third Man, while still film noir in my opinion, has a more naturalistic, European sensibility that eschews the high melodrama and quick pacing seen in its American counterparts. Anna is a lovelorn beauty more often found in European films than in Americans, but she still functions as an ultimately untrustworthy, somewhat antagonistic dame by refusing his advances and essentially siding with Lime. The reaction shots of the local city-dwellers, who all look like nonprofessional actors to me, the on-location shooting, the frequent use of untranslated, European languages, all remind me of approaches to film more often seen in Europe than in America. But the mystery, the duplicity, the moodiness, secrets and passageways, the strong accents on light and shadow, are all there. It’s a different kind of film noir that sets it apart from the more well-known Hollywood variety, but I feel that there are enough hallmarks for it to fit comfortably in that sub-genre.

      I definitely disagree with the supporting characters who introduce clues to the mystery being weak. These characters are full of personality and depth and come alive on the screen thanks to the wonderful performances and mysterious, specific habits the characters have. Dr. Winkel (him constantly reminding Martins the correct way to pronounce his name is a great character bit) and Popescu obviously have connections to the black market or other nefarious activities to be so well-off in such a down-and-out city; there’s so much they’re hiding and that makes them fascinating. Kurtz being a fan, and in fact ever having heard of, Martins’ crappy novels is another great character-revealing moment, as is the fact that Popescu is urbane enough to realize that Martins, being American, would want more ice in his drink than a European normally would. Also, his recurring “Keep the pack!” line is another entertaining character-defining bit. The porter being caught between his desire to help Martins, and his desire to protect his own life from unseen threats, is an absorbing subplot; his fear and anger are palpable and real thanks to that actor’s great performance. Calloway’s constant bantering with Martins, and their initial dislike of each other reluctantly strengthening to mutual respect, is yet another example of character depth and development.

      As far as the mystery not seeming to be much of a mystery, I think that’s more the fault of the fact that the missing man is none other than Orson Welles. Hard to keep such a big name hidden. It’s not really a fault of the story or writing. I felt there were enough twists and turns in the mystery, with characters always contradicting each other’s stories, that it kept things interesting and engaging, even knowing that Mr. Welles would be making an appearance. Also, I didn’t feel that Martins wasn’t interested in uncovering the mystery of Lime’s disappearance; he’s the one who keeps on urging Calloway to dig deeper, ignoring his requests to leave Vienna really only until he is shown the effects of the penicillin racket. I don’t feel that Anna ever becomes his sole focus, but it’s certainly a significant subplot. That Martins has alcoholic, depressive tendencies, and that he pines for Anna, gives him weaknesses and shortcomings, but to me that just makes him a more well-rounded character. He’s not just this man on an unstoppable mission; he’s fighting with himself, too.

  6. November 23, 2009 at 3:19 PM

    As I said above, I really like Martins. First, he hangs around Vienna just because he’s getting paid to by the culture guy. And why not hang around to try to pick up a girl? He clearly had nothing going on back in the States or he wouldn’t have gone to Vienna in the first place. He writes bad cowboy stories that are the lowest of low-brow, but fashions himself into a detective. I really enjoy the way he reacts to the various stories and the way he flip flops on whether he’ll stay in Vienna or not. Maybe I just really like Joseph Cotten, but I think he nails the role.

    • November 23, 2009 at 3:48 PM

      I think Jimmy Stewart, in his aw-shucks form, would have been much more entertaining. Especially if he said “HEE-HAW!” a few times.

      • November 23, 2009 at 4:21 PM

        I don’t know if Jimmy Stewart in “aw-shucks” form would have meshed with the alcoholic nature of Holly Martins. Although, there was “Harvey”…

  7. chilidog
    December 2, 2009 at 7:47 PM

    I don’t have much to add here and my technical knowledge isn’t even going to compare to you guys. Although I wasn’t familiar with the term dutch angles, as soon as I saw the film I knew exactly what you guys were talking about. 1) I thought they were way overused and 2) I didn’t feel they really fit in the first place. Personally I agree with pretty much everything Paul said. Not that I’m trying to take sides, mind you. But I found the music to be insanely distracting and not fitting with the mood of the film at all. The music definitely felt better suited for an upbeat comedy. I also found it strange that Martins was very sloshed at the bar at the beginning, but a few minutes later at the hotel he seemed stone cold sober. This one was a “did not like” for me.

    • December 2, 2009 at 9:05 PM

      Glad to have you join in the discussion! It’s interesting, but having seen the film before this, I never dreamed that anyone would not like it. I thought we’d be heading for consensus just like with Singin’ in the Rain. After hearing you and Paul discuss your issues, I can completely see why some could find the film off-putting. The music and style are something you either jump on board with or pushes you away. Having been on board from the beginning, it didn’t really occur to me.

      As for Martins immediately sobering up, I guess we’ll have to chalk that up to movie magic.

  8. December 2, 2009 at 9:24 PM

    Welcome to Sunday Screenings Aron.

    This film is a pretty good way to explain Dutch Angles without saying much about them. I think they are a technique that can be used to great effect in some instances, but were overused in this film. Now that you know what they are, you’ll probably notice them more in movies (hope we didn’t ruin that for you).

    Glad to have another person on my side, about the music and also about the movie as a whole.

    Can’t wait to see what you have to say about the other films.

    • December 2, 2009 at 9:51 PM

      Incidentally, one of my favorite Dutch angles is in Evil Dead when Ash drives the car up to the bridge, gets out, and crosses in front of the headlights to investigate. There’s a great otherworldly feel to it that is intensely appropriate for the movie.

      • December 2, 2009 at 9:52 PM

        You know, I wanted to reference Evil Dead, but couldn’t think of a specific dutch angle to reference. Raimi did so much with that movie with so little.

  9. December 2, 2009 at 9:58 PM

    Evil Dead references are always welcome. It is pretty amazing how stylish that film is. And that the style fits so well with the content.

  10. chilidog
    December 3, 2009 at 3:34 PM

    Thanks guys! I figure this will be a constructive outlet for my habit of spending hours upon hours each week staring at a television screen. ;)Yeah, as soon as I saw that first one (if I remember correctly) where the maintenance man tells Martins about Lime’s death, I recognized that I’d surely seen the dutch angle in other movies and can see how it’d be very effective in a thriller or highly suspenseful movie, or maybe a movie with a psychedelic theme. And now that you mention it, I know exactly what you mean with Evil Dead, and I agree – such references should be quite welcome!

  11. chilidog
    December 3, 2009 at 3:46 PM

    Thanks guys! I figure this will be a constructive outlet for my habit of spending hours upon hours each week staring at a television screen. ;)Yeah, as soon as I saw that first one (if I remember correctly) where the maintenance man tells Martins about Lime’s death, I recognized that I’d surely seen the dutch angle in other movies and can see how it’d be very effective in a thriller or highly suspenseful movie, or maybe a movie with a psychedelic theme. And now that you mention it Nate, I know exactly what you mean with Evil Dead, and I agree – such references should be quite welcome!

  12. chilidog
    December 4, 2009 at 6:57 PM

    Oops! Sorry for the double post. Didn’t look like it had taken the first one.

  1. November 25, 2009 at 8:33 AM

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