Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Born to be Murdered: Revisiting THE THIRD MAN

 by Rosalie Lewis

This past summer, a work trip took me to Munich for a few days and I decided to tack on a few personal days at the end to explore the Austrian cities of Salzburg and Vienna as well. I was curious about these places for the regular touristy reasons, but if I’m being honest the real motivation was movies.

In Salzburg, I got to see many of the places featured or imitated in The Sound of Music—and yes, I did sing “The Hills Are Alive” on top of a mountain, thank you very much. But this is Noirvember, so I’m not here to talk about that right now. I took a train to Vienna for two movies: Before Sunrise and The Third Man. Since I was only there for about 23 hours and mostly on a Sunday, my sightseeing options were limited. Still, I managed to hit some highlights including the famous steps featured in The Third Man as well as the Wiener Reisenrad aka the Ferris wheel in which Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles have a pivotal conversation.
Just wandering the streets of these European cities felt transportive – there’s so much history; so many echoes of a culture ravaged by wars and rebuilt over time. I alternated walking and taking the train all over. When I sat on a bench scarfing a late-night falafel sandwich, I felt both exhausted and exhilarated. A young woman in high heels and a red dress played Strauss compositions on her violin; older people sat at tables of cafes finishing their conversations over whiskey, curling lines of smoke intertwining from cigarettes abandoned in ashtrays. It almost felt wrong to be there and not be creating something.

Today, I revisited The Third Man in part to recognize the places I’d been but also because it’s just one of the best movies ever made. I know Citizen Kane gets a lot of love and rightfully so; but personally, I’d rank this higher. I always forget just how little Orson Welles appears in the movie, because Harry Lime’s shadow looms over the entire film. His name is on everyone’s lips and his reputation precedes him—although what kind of reputation depends on if you’re asking his lover, his friend, or the cops. It’s also fun seeing Joseph Cotten playing the straight man rather than the villain—he’s just a penniless Western writer hitching his wagon to a successful pal. He never planned to get mixed up in all this intrigue, but somehow he can’t help himself. Maybe it’s the incredulity that his best friend “accidentally” died the day they were supposed to meet, or maybe it’s the girl his friend left behind—either way, he’s in it now.

Speaking of girls, Alida Valli struck me even more this time than usual. Her emotion feels so raw and genuine, and the way she keeps accidentally calling Holly “Harry” made me smile. I also loved her little cat, who plays an important role in discovering what’s really going on here. (There’s also a very cute dog in this movie, and a savage parrot!)
A million people have written and talked about the incredible cinematography by Robert Krasker, who previously teamed with director Carol Reed on Odd Man Out. Few shadows are more iconic than the silhouette of Harry Lime’s hat appearing intimidatingly large across the buildings in the square during the stakeout. And the way Krasker shoots the people walking around the carnival from the top of the Ferris wheel – well, let’s just say my own pictures from up there didn’t look nearly as cool.
As for the music, who doesn’t love that zither score by Anton Karas? The story behind the score is that Karas was a factory worker from a poor family, and he discovered a zither in the attic at the age of 12. When Carol Reed was touring Vienna to scout filming locations, he heard Karas playing in a wine garden and insisted that this was the perfect sound for the film. Karas took a lot of convincing, and never quite took to the fame that followed; but it’s an iconic sound that arguably gives the film even more distinction among its post WWII peers.

If you haven’t visited this film in a while – or if you’ve never actually watched at all—give it a whirl this Noirvember. Let it stir something in you as you contemplate the Harry Limes of today.


  1. The Third Man is possibly the best representation of what a Classic Film Noir is.

    Now, where's my 4k?

  2. It has been a long time since I saw The Third Man, but there was a period in the early 2000s when I watched it every time I found it on TCM. I knew that I had to stay till the conclusion. I agree with you about it being a more enjoyable watch than Citizen Kane. Over the past few years, I have largely shied away from films that I know well. I am more interested this Noirvember in getting to ones that I have never seen before or barely remember.

  3. OOOOOOO that settles it....The Third Man has been on my "gotta watch" list for a long time! Must move it to the "wow! watched and loved" list ASAP. Thanks Rosalie!

    PS: Ive been fortunate enough to visit Austria several times for work and i love it. Glad to hear you got to visit and explore movie local's...great work!!!!