The Third Man is, unquestionably, one of the greatest films of all time. It is probably the greatest British film of all too. Based on a screenplay by Graham Greene, set amidst the rubble of post-war Vienna and starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, this one was always going to be good. It was, for many years, regarded as the film noir to beat all others and is my favourite movie. Radical in it's cinematic concept and brilliantly shot by Robert Krasker, the film has more atmosphere than any film I have seen before or since.
It all starts with Holly Martins (Cotten), a drunkard who writes the type of books which used to be known as "penny dreadfuls", arriving in Vienna not long after the end of WWII on the promise of a job. It turns out that his prospective employer, Harry Lime (Welles), has been killed in an accident and Martins has arrived just in time for the funeral. Lime's friends soon make contact with the wayward Martins, who becomes convinced that his friend has been murdered, and eventually through a series of encounters, he winds up in the hands of the Military Police.
In the opinion of this reviewer, this is Cotten's best film and though I've never been a big fan of his, he suits the role admirably. I also believe this is Trevor Howard's finest performance. So good is Howard that there is little doubt over his conviction that Martins is wrong and the scene where all is revealled to him is a feature of the film. Orson Welles was an acting giant in anyone's terms although by this time he was almost universally regarded as box office poison. His characterisation of the psychopathic Lime has been the model for so many film baddies and in may ways is as sinister as Hannibal Lecter.
The cinematography is superb. Shot on the streets of bombed-out Vienna and using minimal lighting, it gives definition to the film noir genre. The lighting reflected off wet cobblestone roads and the hard shadows created by single brute arcs create a cold, stark landscape for Carol Reed's direction and the underlying suspense of the plot. Much of the film; certainly the majority of the interiors as well as nearly all the sewer scenes, were actually shot in studio in the UK but all the location stuff is real, so much so that you can even do a "Third Man" tour if you are in Vienna.
The Criterion transfer is the sharpest B&W I have ever seen and rather than being merely technically precise, really adds to the atmosphere of the film. There was an enormous number of repairs made to the original print (something like 22,000, if my memory serves me correctly) and the ultimate product is almost seemless and has a beautiful grey scale. There are a few added features, including a rather comical short of Anton Karas playing the famous theme on his zither in a London club. Karas, incidentally, a Gypsy who could not read music, was first spotted in a seedy Vienna nightclub and contracted to do the film more-or-less on the spot. It is extraordinary how much the zither adds to the film.
Reckoned by many to be the finest suspense film ever made and containing more cinematic innovation than almost anything which came afterward it, until the arrival of the French New Wave, this film wants for nothing. The acting performances are top notch, the pictures are beautiful and the plot is terrific. There is even a little wry humour at the expense of Viennese society. A cinematic gem not to be missed and essential to any serious film buff's library.