You know the story. Holly Martins (Cotten), a writer of pulp Westerns and one of life's congenital third-raters, arrives in post-WWII Vienna only to learn that his old pal Harry Lime, the guy who sent him his plane ticket, is being buried. Everybody, from a cynical British cop named Calloway (Trevor Howard) to Harry's Continental knockout of a girlfriend (AlidaValli) and his sundry absurd/Euro-sinister business associates, feels that Holly should get on another plane and go home. He doesn't. Things come to light. Other deaths follow. The world lies in utter ruin.
The Third Man completed a sublime hat trick--an international critical and popular smash following upon the success of Reed's Odd Man Out ('47) and The Fallen Idol ('48). Although other filmmakers had begun to use war-ravaged Europe as a great movie set, The Third Man is so vivid in its canny mix of gray semidocumentary and insanely angular, Expressionist/Surrealist chiaroscuro that it seems to have imagined not only the postwar thriller but also postwar Europe itself singlehandedly.
What great movie moments: The throwaway details like a mourner who forgets to drop his wreath on a newly dug grave. The sly editing whereby thick-headed Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee, once and future "M" to 007) goes on leafing through a magazine, knowing just the moment he must rise and subdue the nervy Yank who would take a punch at his boss. The way Anton Karas's legendary zither score seems to jangle in the very guy-lines of a bridge where, far below Robert Krasker's Oscar-winning camera, the Third Man calls a war council. The shadow of a dead man towering, big as Europe, over the nighttime streets of Vienna. --Richard T. Jameson
Stills from The Third Man (Click for larger image)