The Third Man An out of work pulp fiction novelist, Holly Martins, arrives in a post war Vienna divided into sectors by the victorious allies, and where a shortage of supplies has led to a flourishing black market. He arrives at the invitation of an ex-school friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job, only to discover that Lime has recently died in a peculiar traffic accident. From talking to Lime’s friends and associates Martins soon notices that some of the stories are inconsistent, and determines to discover what really happened to Harry Lime.
That Terrific B&W Cinematography
But in searching for details of Lime’s death, Holly gets contradictory stories that don’t add up. One of the persons who knew Lime is an attractive woman named Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) whose continued presence in the story invites suspicion. The film’s plot has Holly searching for the truth about his friend, while trying to stave off a city detective, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who tries to persuade Holly to leave Vienna.
The film’s story is okay. But what makes “The Third Man” really interesting is the B&W cinematography, by Robert Krasker. Unlike most films, camera movement here is restricted, so as to draw attention to each frame’s geometry. Typically in this film, a frame is tilted at an angle so that both vertical and horizontal points of reference are off-kilter. Frame images thus become a series of diagonal straight lines and curves. Further, very high-contrast lighting, especially in outdoor scenes at night, creates a bizarre, almost nightmarish look and feel, and are suggestive of German Expressionism.
All of which results in a visual disorientation for viewers that parallels Holly’s disorientation both in the streets of Vienna and in his understanding of the circumstances surrounding Lime’s absence. In most outdoor scenes there’s a conspicuous lack of crowds, a lack of hubbub one would expect in a bustling city. Instead, only a few secondary characters appear in night scenes. This sparseness in characters on the streets conveys the impression that hidden eyes are watching Holly, ready to pounce at any moment from out of dark shadows.
“Everybody ought to (be) careful in a city like this”, says one character to Holly, as an implied threat. Soon, a man who wants to give Holly some valuable information is murdered.
The script’s dialogue is quite impressive, with some interesting lines and points of view. Some of the dialogue is in German, which enhances authenticity.
The film’s acting and editing are very, very good. Adding a slightly romantic, and at times melancholy, tone to this dark film is the music of the “zither”, an instrument similar to a guitar, but sounding quite different.
“The Third Man” tells an interestingly bleak story, set in a bleak, desolate urban environment, rendered truly mesmerizing by the creatively surreal B&W cinematography.