The Third Man (UK 1949)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 6/4/12
Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee

A tale of corruption, betrayal, and murder, as American pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to post-war Vienna to visit his childhood friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Unfortunately, he arrives just as Lime is being put in the ground following a fatal car accident. After talking to several people, Martins starts to suspect foul play and antagonizes Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) to investigate the situation. Getting no help from the law and disregarding every piece of advice he's given, Martins decides to conduct his own investigation which nearly gets him killed. As a big, dumb, loud American, he simply doesn't understand the rules of being in an occupied European country under military rule, and has a knack for getting into trouble and poking his nose where it doesn't belong. He finds a friend in an actress named Anna (Alida Valli) who was Lime's lover, but her stubbornness and European pride almost get her killed (or worse). Everything comes to a head with a magnificent chase through the sewers of Vienna, with bittersweet results.

First and foremost, the cinematography is superb, and the bombed out city of Vienna is breathtaking in both its stark beauty and crumbling decay. Harsh shadows, skewed angles, and other lens distortions create a sinister and unsettling atmosphere, which nicely complements the vein of corruption that runs through the city's populace. Unfortunately, the bizarre and increasingly annoying zither musical score ruins the mood with its loud and awkward jauntiness, as if it were trying to turn the movie into a lighthearted comedy. The story is interesting and the acting is quite good, although sometimes it's difficult to follow the characters' motivations. Trevor Howard is wonderful and Alida Valli is beautiful and mysterious. The pacing can be a bit tedious and Cotten isn't particularly enjoyable or engaging, but the film definitely ends on a high note with the stunning sewer chase.