The Third Man

Movie Information

In Brief: In keeping with the practice of bringing newly restored classic films to Asheville, the Asheville Film Society has booked the brand new 4K restoration of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) for one show only on Wed., Sept. 30. Judging by the eye-popping quality of these restorations, I fully expect this version to be revelatory in its sharpness and detail. The movie is about as close to a perfect film as you’re likely to get. It’s that rarest of movies in that it’s a filmmaker favorite (I’ve yet to meet the director who didn’t treasure it), a film buff’s delight and immediately accessible to the more casual moviegoer all at once. Why? Because it works on so many levels simultaneously and is positively breathless in its flow. From the very first scenes, The Third Man never really lets up. Director Reed’s voice-over about postwar Vienna and the start of the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is delivered at almost breakneck speed. It hardly even matters that the film’s mystery isn’t much of a mystery (assuming you know who Orson Welles plays). The story is always fascinating and the dialogue first-rate throughout, all delivered by a perfect cast in amazing settings, and all framed by Reed in such a manner that there’s not an uninteresting composition in the entire film.
Genre: Suspense Thriller
Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde White
Rated: NR



The story’s about a third-rate American writer of bad Western novels, Holly Martins, who lands in Vienna broke, but in hopes of a job from an old friend, who has inconveniently been killed a few days earlier. Martins arrives just in time for the funeral — and finds himself suspicious about his friend’s death, which plunges him into a very tangled web of deceit and more than a little danger. As pure entertainment, the film scores on every level, but never perhaps more than in Cotten’s famous scene with Welles on the giant Ferris wheel (a scene for which Welles wrote his own dialogue — only to later learn that his most famous line was factually incorrect).




If you’ve never seen the film (and there must be a few out there who haven’t), it’s an essential. If you have seen it, it’s worth another viewing (no matter how many you’ve had). And you can sit there and marvel at the studio fighting Reed tooth and nail over his determination that the film’s score should be nothing but Anton Karas’ zither music. Fortunately for us all, Reed won. Then again, “The Third Man Theme” caused a brief mania for zither music when it became a hit record (even my mother bought the 78 — something I think I still have). Some may view an increase in zither records as a very mixed blessing.




I should probably admit that I went through a brief period 30 years ago where I incomprehensibly soured on the movie. I was wrong and I admit it, though I can’t account for it. But since I committed my wrong-headedness to print in an Orson Welles tribute article in Films in Review, it seems wiser to mention it. Looking at the film today, I can only marvel at what an amazing work The Third Man is on every level. It’s not just Reed’s striking direction with its precise use of Dutch angles that keep the viewer on uncertain ground as much as the events do Holly Martins. It’s not just the flawless perfornances — compelling in a movie sense, yet affording the illusion of reality. It’s not just the film’s then unusual ending. It’s certainly not just the zither score. No, it’s the perfect blend of all these things.




This, after all, is the movie — at least next to Citizen Kane — most immediately identified with Orson Welles. Yet the third-billed Welles doesn’t even show up till about an hour of the film has elapsed. Even then he only has the one big dialogue scene — after which he’s mostly a presence. But what a presence! Regardless, he looms over the entire film. The first hour can almost be taken as the build-up to his appearance. Probably no character in the history of movies is so talked about before we see him, or so drives the plot. In a way, it’s probably the greatest conjuring trick in all cinema — an accolade Welles, the would-be magician, would surely accept — and an astonishing one. But then The Third Man is an astonishing film in every way.

The Asheville Film Society is showing The Third Man on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 8:00 p.m. at The Carolina as part of the Budget Big Screen series. Admission is $6 for AFS members and $8 for the general public. Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther will introduce the film.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

4 thoughts on “The Third Man

  1. mtndancer

    ” after which he’s mostly a presence. ” Or his body double is since he wouldn’t do the sewers, if memory serves me correct.

    • Ken Hanke

      Problem is that the stories vary so much from source to source that it’s hard to know who to believe. Regardless, would it matter? By that I mean it’s still the Welles presence — not assistant director Guy Hamilton in a padded coat.

  2. Charles Bishop

    This work of art shook the core of this adolescent viewer of tv’s late show in the 60’s. The subliminal plot showing the devastation of the worlds most elegant advanced society was an overwhelming experience. I believe it led me to study and then appreciate the magnitude of the world wide nightmare of WWII’s advanced industrial supported violence that led to the murder and maiming of 100 million people. And it helped me understand the phrase “vast wasteland” representing sappy situation comedies, but not why actors, writers and directors who lived through WWII chose to make a career of Lucy, Beaver, gameshows etc.
    One other brief note. The zither was surprising and very strange to my ears . I think it was a brilliant cue to look for the message that I received.

  3. Ken Hanke

    And it helped me understand the phrase “vast wasteland” representing sappy situation comedies, but not why actors, writers and directors who lived through WWII chose to make a career of Lucy, Beaver, gameshows etc.

    You raise an interesting, though unanswerable question. I suppose the easy answer is escapism, though not everyone went that route (and it’s tricky to compare movies and TV). Probably one of the most strikingly changed directors was George Stevens — who was actually in the war — who went from mostly comedic work in the pre-war years to an ever-darkening vision when he came home. I would not say this was necessarily a good thing, because the more serious Stevens became, the more ponderous (and long-winded) his films became. Generally, though, this is second guessing. Frank Capra (also in the war), for instance, lost his clout after the box office fiasco of It’s a Wonderful Life and took what he could get (which was nothing from 1951-59). John Ford (also in the war) remained pretty much himself — but with the deepening sadness of passing years. In all cases, though, the question arises whether it was the war or simply age or a changing industry or some combination.

Leave a Reply to Ken Hanke ×

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.