The Third Man

by Logan Gion

The Basics

The Third Man


Directed by Carol Reed

Starring: Orsen Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli

Why is The Third Man considered obligatory?

Every film student in America, upon taking Cinematography 101, watches clips from The Third Man because of a shot called “The Dutch Tilt” or “The Oblique.” Below is a comparison:

This is your brain on normal camera...
And this is your brain on dutch tilt!

Why did you watch The Third Man now?

Despite seeing those film clips, I’d never actually watched the entire movie. Towards the end of quarantine, I discovered a collection on one of my streaming apps entitled “Movies to Watch for your New Year’s Resolution.” The Third Man was only a few clicks down, and I thought that I should finally fill in this particular gap.

What’s The Third Man about?

Vienna, 1949: WWII just ended and the law is desperately trying to reestablish itself. This is perfect for those who want to make a quick buck because they can take advantage of the confusion.

Enter Holly Martins, a struggling pulp novelist whose old college buddy, Harry Lime, told him about a get-rich-quick scheme. One problem: Lime’s dead. Even stranger, no one wants to wrap up Lime’s affairs, so Martins has to pick up the pieces.

Martin’s first stop is Lime’s funeral, where he meets Anna Schmidt. She’s Lime’s girlfriend and tells Martins that a car hit Lime on purpose right outside of his apartment, then two guys carried the body away.

Martins heads back to Lime’s apartment and confirms the story with the landlord.

“Yes, I saw Lime get hit by the car, then three men took away the body,” says the landlord.

“Wait, three?” asks Martins, “That doesn’t match up with what Anna told me. I wonder who the third man is…”

Hence the title The Third Man. This movie is a classic example of Film Noir, so Anna’s definitely hiding something. Does she know what actually happened to Lime? Are the overspread police letting Martins do their legwork for them? Will Martins ever actually get paid for any of this? The movie answers all of these questions, satisfying the audience—if not the characters.


Do I actually have to see The Third Man?

You probably already have; you just didn’t recognize it.

Generations of films have borrowed The Third Man’s plot twists, aesthetics, and character archetypes. The shadowy villain lurking just out of the hero’s eyesight? The Dark Knight did it well, but The Third Man did it first. Beautiful yet troubled women desperate to escape a toxic relationship? James Bond knows a few. Evil monologues given atop scenic overlooks? Thanos from The Avengers definitely watched The Third Man while practicing.

If we’re giving credit where it’s due, though, even The Third Man is beholden to its predecessors. The Third Man’s villain probably watched Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, a silent film from 1922, on repeat. Additionally, Film Noir was firmly established as a genre by the time The Third Man came out, and The Third Man fits comfortably into the genre.

So, yes The Third Man is historically important and necessary if you want to track film’s journey as a storytelling medium or entertainment vehicle.


Okay, but would the average person appreciate The Third Man nowadays?

Honestly, we’d get a mixed bag. Firstly, this film’s inexplicably NOT AVAILABLE IN HD OR 4K! (Update 6/23/22: It totally is; I just wasn’t looking in the right places.) A Hi-Def upgrade would make the film’s gorgeous blacks look even inkier. Other than that—and here’s where I might get labeled a blashphemer—the film could use a re-edit. There’s nothing wrong with the original; the issue is simply that current audiences are more used to film’s language and shortcuts.

During the final chase, for instance, The Third Man shows multiple shots of the villain running through repetitive sewer tunnels. It’s eye-poppingly cool… until it gets boring. We, the audience, know where the chase is headed, so the extra effort the film puts into showing us what’s happening not only makes us feel stupid, but also clotheslines the pacing of the most exciting sequence. While this may have been needed in the late 1940s, I doubt today’s viewers will notice anything’s missing.

I do NOT, however, advocate for an editing hatchet for expediency’s sake. The final shot of the film is a long, unbroken take of one character walking towards another. Without giving away too much, there’s an important character reason behind WHY this shot is so long.

Basically, all we need is an editor who perfectly understands the artistic intentions of a 70-year-old film and can flawlessly update it for today’s audience!


Who’s the audience?

  • Film snobs
  • People obsessed with black-and-white filters
  • Ferris-wheel lovers

Where can I watch The Third Man?

You know what else is "must-see"?

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