The Vienna depicted in Carol Reed’s The Third Man no longer exists. It is a maze of sewers, back alleys, political gamesmanship, and lies. Nothing remains except for abandoned bourgeois flats, decrepit buildings and an amusement park devoid of any children. The city is chopped into quadrants controlled by the victorious World Powers following the aftermath of World War II. There are the rich and the poor and no one in between. The rich either have political connections or have the audacity to cheat their way into the higher echelons of society. The poor make due by keeping their mouths shut and letting the corrupt and powerful walk all over them. 1949 Vienna is a city you want don’t to visit – unless you’re Holly Martins and on a mission to find your lost friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).
Who is Harry Lime? Well, that’s the question that pervades the entire film. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp fiction novelist, comes to Vienna looking for his friend Harry Lime. Upon his arrival, Holly learns that Harry is dead. He was hit by a car while crossing the street. Soon, Holly finds that there is more to Harry’s unfortunate death that what lies on the surface. Holly tries to ascertain Harry’s whereabouts from the “friends” Harry acquired in Vienna, and from Harry’s lover Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). Like all film-noir, no one is who they appear to be, not even the dilapidated city itself. To write any more about the film’s synopsis is a detriment, but if you haven’t guessed, Harry Lime isn’t as dead as he appears to be.
Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker keep the audience off balance. The camera is almost always at a tilt (Dutch angle) and the shadows convey a menace that will swallow you up. Reed and Krasker give us a Vienna that is a deadly Wonderland. Holly is the naïve Alice following the White Rabbit of Harry Lime down the rabbit hole of Vienna. There is no firm ground and even bellow the street of the Austrian city lays a network of sewers. The Third Man is a bundle of string that takes pure delight in unraveling for its audience.