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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Amateur Day

The Third Man

Plot Overview

Vienna after the war, 1948, was “the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything.” Harry Lime (Orson Welles) as a matter of “course like a professional” tried running a penicillin scam at £70 a tube for a diluted product. Unfortu­nately, an injection of diluted penicillin makes one immune to the real drug, and that's about the only wonder drug they had back then. Consequently, people died (or worse, went mad)—especially children with menin­gitis—putting Harry in the hot seat with author­ities, so he decided to stage his own death. In a variation of the old “three card trick,” he needed a couple patsies to help him make it work. He gave up his Czech girl­friend Anna Schmidt (Aldi Valli) to the Russians, whose passport he'd had forged, in exchange for being allowed to stay in the Russian sector. He invited an American friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) to come visit him, to arrive right after his "accident" in order to allay any suspicion that his "death" was planned.

British Army police superior Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) advises the American, “Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don't know what you're mixing in, get the next plane,” to which he replies, “As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I'll get the next plane.” Disaster seems to follow Holly around, he him­self becomes the suspect in a murder, and he leads a merry chase (“Schnell, Schnell”) over, under, and around bombed-out Vienna.


zither“The Third Man” bears an uncanny structural resemblance to Psalm 33. Prominent in the movie is music played on an abundantly stringed zither, and in the psalm on “an instrument of ten strings,” Psalm 33:1-2. The director worked intimately day by day with his hand-picked musician to tailor the music to what was shot earlier in the day. In Psalm 33:3 it was “play[ed] skill­fully with a loud noise.” The plot can be taken with reference to a universal “righteousness and judgment” expressing “the goodness of the Lord,” Psalm 33:4-5.

There's a shot of “the heavens,” Psalm 33:6, (clouds) before the movie proper even starts. There are multiple shots of the under­ground sewers of Vienna, and in Psalm 33:7 is mentioned the “gathered … waters of the sea.” Psalm 33:8-9 invokes awe at the Creator of these waters, and the movie awe at this under­ground work.

In Psalm 33:10, “The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: he maketh the devices of the people of none effect,” and in the movie all the plans of a con­sum­mate black market operator get thwarted. The American pulp novelist Holly's lecture to a literary society includes the topic, “The Crisis of Faith”, cf Psalm 33:11. Holly, seems to live a charmed life, cf Psalm 33:12. The opening shots establish that there's a little larceny in all our hearts, cf Psalm 33:13-15, what with the thriving black market.

Harry's pistol is not going to save him, nor is his familiarity with the sewers as an escape route, cf Psalm 33:16-17. Harry gives lip service to “believ[ing] in God and Mercy and all that,” cf Psalm 33:18, but penniless Holly seems to benefit from living out some kind of faith, cf Psalm 33:19, and his visit to the hospital children's ward seems to evoke in him some quiet resolve, cf Psalm 33:20-21 and Psalm 33:22.

Production Values

“The Third Man” (1949) was directed by Carol Reed and starred Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. Graham Greene (1904–1991) wrote its screen­play that he developed from his novella The Third Man that he published after production. Carol Reed allowed Orson Welles to direct parts of it; he just didn't use his material in the final cut. Welles ad libbed a quip about the Swiss having invented the cuckoo clock, which was funny but not historic­ally accurate—the cuckoo clock was actually invented in Germany. Robert Krasker's B&W photog­raphy was wondrous using skewed ("Dutch") angles to heighten the tension and keep the hero off balance. In this all-round great picture, every­thing else is eclipsed by the zither music composed and performed by a busker whom Reed discovered at a catered function and latched onto him. Unfortunately, care wasn't given to the conversion of film audio for an auditorium into a digital home medium, so the greatness comes across as heavy volume at times. This is an utterly well crafted film that can produce a feeling of satisfaction at the viewing even in one not partial to film noir. Post war­time Vienna looks utterly realistic.

Review Conclusion w/ Consumer Recommendation

Since my movie class night replaced my international folk dancing night of many years, I just ate up that zither music. It's catchy and well tailored to the moods of the film. This is one where you can't go wrong selecting it for an adult audience of eclectic tastes. It's in a better class than many favorites.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Edge of your seat action-packed fun Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Well done special effects. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Suspense: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Overall product rating: Five stars out if Five.