The Third Man

Movie Information

In Brief: Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) 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
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). 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, which some may view as a very mixed blessing.

Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present The Third Man Friday, March 13, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library).  Info: 273-3332,

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."

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