Review of “The Third Man” (1949)

trailer from YouTube

This is this week’s Saturday night pizza and bad movie offering. The pizza and wine were good, and so was the movie, which we borrowed from the library.


American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in post-war Vienna at the invitation of an old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Lime has promised Martins a job, something the author of westerns of middling success looks forward to. He’s rather surprised that Harry isn’t at the train station to meet him.

Post-war Vienna, like post-war Berlin, is divided into sectors, each controlled by the Allied Powers and the USSR: the American, the British, the French, and the Soviet Union. The Center of Vienna is under joint control. The black market flourishes.

Martins makes his way to Harry’s apartment, where the porter, Karl (Paul Hörbiger), who speaks a little English, tells him he’s fifteen minutes too late. Harry’s coffin has been taken away. He was knocked over by a truck and died instantly.

Martins goes to the funeral. He notices a beautiful woman (Alida Valli) grieving. As the ceremony concludes, a man in a British uniform approaches him, offers him a ride and a drink. He introduces himself as Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), a police officer in the British sector.

Over that drink, he tells Holly he’s glad Harry is dead. He was a racketeer and a murderer. Drunk and maudlin, Holly takes a swing at him but is knocked onto his rear by Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee). The Sergeant apologizes and assures him he likes his books. Calloway then agrees to put Holly up in a nearby hotel and get him a ticket on a plane out of Vienna the next day.

Of course, Holly stays.  He wonders about Harry’s death. A mutual friend, Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), tells him he and Harry were out walking. He was struck when he crossed the street to talk to a Romanian friend, Popescu (Siegfried Breuer). As he was dying, he left instructions for the welfare of Martins and his lover, Anna.

But, if he died immediately… He talks again to Karl, who tells him—against his wife’s wishes—three men carried Harry’s body to the side of the road, and he was killed instantly.

But there were only two men in the area, Kurtz and Popescu.

“Who was the third man?” Martins asks.


This portrays the sadness and destruction of post-war Europe nicely. One gets a sense of nihilism, particularly in the character of Anna. She says at one point she is glad Harry is dead. She doesn’t love him, but he is part of her.

Holly seeks to do right. At first, he seeks justice for his friend. The theme of friendship runs through the movie, as does the idea of morality, of choosing the higher good over the expedient. The choices are not black and white but shades of gray.

One of the most famous scenes of the movie takes place between Lime and Martins as they ride the famous Ferris wheel in Vienna, the Wiener Riesenrad, located at this time in the Soviet-controlled sector. Where else would someone go if they were hiding from, say, the British authorities?

Watching the people on the ground below them, Lime tells Martins, “Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax— the only way you can save money nowadays.”

Lime offers to cut Holly in on his racketeering business but doesn’t wait for an answer. He does, however, give Holly another speech. “Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

For most of the movie, Martins is disregarded for writing westerns. Sgt. Paine admits to liking them. Many of the men pass them around. Still, the genre is the butt of jokes. And yet, the movie itself, particularly with its themes of friendship and betrayal, bears more than a passing resemblance to a western. This is most notable in its ending.

The film’s music was performed on a zither and written by a local Viennese musician, Anton Karas. Some people find it annoying, but it made Karas famous, much to his dismay.

In 1949, this film won the Grand Prize of the Festival at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1950, it won the National Board of Review (USA) Top Foreign Film NBR Award for Top Foreign Film. Also in 1950, Director Carol Reed was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Directors Guild of America. BAFTA awarded The Third Man Best British film and nominated it for Best Film from any source. The following year, it won an Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography and was nominated for Best Director (Carol Reed) and Best Film Editing (Oswald Hafenrichter).

I could not find this movie for free as a download, but if you can get it from your library, it’s definitely worth a look-see.

Title: The Third Man (1949)

Directed by
Carol Reed

Writing Credits
Graham Greene(by)
Graham Greene…(screenplay)
Orson Welles …(uncredited)
Alexander Korda…(story) (uncredited)
Carol Reed…(uncredited)

Joseph Cotten…Holly Martins
Alida Valli…Anna Schmidt
Orson Welles…Harry Lime
Trevor Howard…Maj. Calloway
Paul Hörbiger…Karl (as Paul Hoerbiger)
Ernst Deutsch…Baron Kurtz

Released: 1949
Length: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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