Set in post-WW2 Vienna, American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to discover that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident. Suspecting there is something more to it, Cotten embarks on an investigation to find the truth and to discover who the mysterious third man present at Lime's death was.
The Third Man has become known as a standout classic in the Film Noir and thriller genres and its easy to see why. This is a film that has received considerable praise for its unconventional "Dutch Camera" angles and harsh stage lighting, which all contribute to the tone and tension of the film. The highly stylised monochrome cinematography made the film atmospheric and suspenseful. Although, of course, nothing new now, the "Dutch Camera" angles helped to set the Third Man apart from other noir films of the era, like Casablanca, Double Indemnity and Citizen Kane. The quirky tilt shots and angles were engaging and added a new facet to the film. They also contributed to the unsettled tone of the film by emphasising how alienated and out of place the characters were, especially the American, Holly Martins.
As a thriller, this film keeps the tension up with plenty of twists, turns and moral ambiguity. I won't ruin the big twist here, but it was certainly a good one. The moral ambiguity, especially centring around Lime's character, and also the film's ending, tie in well with the social context of WW2 Austria, at the beginning of the Cold War. Although, Austria was being shared by Britain, France, America and Russia, there was no love lost between America and Russia, which was something that translated well into the film. Tensions run high in the film, as Martins faces a number of obstacles that prevent him from finding the truth, including some of his key witnesses being murdered, Lime's ex girlfriend and army officers who are initially unwilling to help.
Finally, we come to the famous speech of the film and probably what provides the biggest food for thought:
"You know what the fellow said – 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."
Are good results the result of bad environments or intentions? Is it possible for good consequences to stem from good environments? Is it ever as black and white as this? Let me know your thoughts below.