The Carol Reed-Graham Greene collaboration that worked so well in Our Man in Havana works even better in The Third Man (1949), a movie that manages to improve every time I see it. A gripping mystery, beautifully shot; it’s an indisputable classic.
When pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to post-World War II Vienna to take a job from his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he instead gets a shock: Lime is dead. A sympathetic post-funeral drink with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) reveals that Lime was somehow in the sights of the military police, which piques Holly’s interest, as does the fact a missing “third man” who witnessed the accident has vanished without a trace. Before he knows it, Holly has blundered into a full-blown investigation of his friend’s death, which leads him into the romantic orbit of Lime’s grieving ex Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli)—not to mention an eyeful of Vienna’s black market underworld.
With its stark, noir cinematography, rakish camera angles, and striking location work, The Third Man is a beautiful film to behold. The performances from everyone involved, including an iconic turn from Welles, are perfect. But ultimately, the movie soars on the strength of its ingenious plot, which leads Martins through a maze that’s bitter, cynical, and treacherous even as it’s laced with zippy, bantering humor. A cheerfully incongruous zither score from Anton Karas soon proves to be an inspired contrast to the grim backdrop and scheming skullduggery that motivates the players. The mystery’s twists and turns resolve brilliantly in a memorable chase, followed by what may be one of the best final moments in the history of film.
The Third Man is a film of such quality it could easily place near the top of any best-of list, let alone one dedicated to spy cinema. The Spy 100 list makes many disputable claims, but giving this film the number one spot isn’t one of them.