The Third Man is a truly classical film made in 1949 by Carol Reed and based on a script by Graham Greene. As Greene felt film scenarios are too dry, he first wrote a novella for the film, which was later published as a book (together with the short story for The Fallen Idol). The novella is the film's embryo, so to speak, and several changes were made, in the names of the characters, but also more important ones. The novella is enjoyable, but the film is the greater artistic work, so I will limit my discussion to the film.
As is often the case with Graham Greene, the story is one of deceit and double-dealing - a method Greene uses to bring out the moral ambiguities in which our contemporary world is steeped.
Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) has been invited by his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) to come to postwar Vienna (a bombed out city still occupied by the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France, and split in four sectors), but he just manages to be in time for his friend's burial. He starts investigating the death of Harry Lime and discovers that there are various mysteries, such as the appearance of a strange "third man" at the site where Harry was run over by a truck. He talks to Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the investigating officer and a powerful man who considers him as a nuisance. Calloway finally fills him in on Harry's criminal activities: selling diluted penicillin on the black market, which led to the deaths of many patients, including children.
Holly also meets with Harry's friends and acquaintances, such as Anna (Alifa Valli) who was Harry's lover. Holly himself falls in love with Anna, but she is still so full of Harry that he simply doesn't exist for her. She sees him as a rather weak and laughable figure (he manages to get bitten by a parrot, of all things). And then in nightly Vienna, Anna's cat leads Holly to a startling discovery... Harry Lime is alive, standing in a doorway, bathed in shadow.
The film was shot on location in Vienna and the city is in fact the real protagonist. Reed spent two months filming in Vienna, only a few extra scenes were shot in the studios in England. Reed's Vienna is a dark and lonely place, very different from the waltzing city of Strauss. Reed had the streets hosed down with water, so that the cobble stones would glitter on the screen. He also flew in four huge searchlights, which helped him cast enormous shadows on the walls of the nightly city. Unforgettable is also the finale in the extensive underground sewer system, or the central scene where Holly and Harry meet each other in the big Ferris wheel on the Prater. This stood in the Russian sector and had just been put back in operation.
This fairground scene also contains the moral of the film: in the war, millions of innocent people were killed by governments, as so many flies. What is he doing wrong when for money he kills a few of those "dots" himself, Harry says? Isn't this the way of the world, that the strong squash the weak? In other words, Lime serves as the embodiment of the banality of evil and forms a symbol for the moral breakdown after the Second World War.
To reinforce this story, Reed used expressionistic techniques as chiaroscuro lightning and canted camera angles - almost like Welles had done in Citizen Kane (giving birth to the legend that Welles had been involved in the direction of the film, which was not the case - he only barely showed up for the few scenes in which he figures). Reed also discovered the zither player Anton Karas and had him do all the music for the film. The film's signature tune catapulted Karas to fame and led to one of the first musical "hits" of the postwar period.
The Third Man became Reed's best film by far, and one of the best films ever made, the result of perfect team work of the director with author Graham Greene, cinematographer Robert Krasker, producer Alexander Korda, screen icon Orson Welles, and many others.
The novella The Third Man is available from Penguin Books; the film is available in the Criterion Collection.