The Third Man (1949)
Produced by Carol Reed, Screenplay by Graham Greene
Starring Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotton, and Alida Valli
There is no better reminder and introduction to the history of Austria in mid-20th century than this classic British film dating to 1949. Unless you have a special connection with Austria those of you who grew up during the Cold War probably don’t remember that Vienna, like Berlin, was a divided city after World War II. Hitler had annexed Austria in 1938 and made it a part of the Greater Germany. By war’s end in 1945 Vienna became occupied by the Americans, British, French and Soviets. It is in this occupied and divided city that Graham Greene’s famous "film noir", is set.
A mystery story of intrigue and trafficking in watered down penicillin by an American in Vienna, the story unfolds with the death of the lead protagonist. His naïve American friend, fresh off the airplane, shows up at his door in response to his friend’s offer of work. He arrives just in time to attend the friend’s funeral and to learn he had been killed in a tragic accident just outside his apartment when he stepped off the curb and was run down by a passing truck. The "third man" is the unknown passer-by who helped to remove the injured man from the street.
The film is dramatic in its photography of a divided Vienna, ravaged by war. The photography, the story line, the acting, and the surprise turns in the plot have made this film one of greatest films of all time. It won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949 and went on to achieve the British Academy best film award and the US Academy Award for best black and white film. As a British production it was recently voted the best British film of all time.
Woven throughout the film is the sub-plot of the young Czech woman played by Alida Valli who is illegally in the British occupied zone of Vienna under the protection of Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. This part of the plot ties the tale together and weaves an element of humanity and romance into what is otherwise a pretty grim film. This plot provides us with a window on the future occupation of all of Eastern Europe by the Soviets until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989.
Vienna was liberated by the occupation forces by 1955 when Austria became a free state. The film reminds us of what might have been had it gone the way of Berlin or Prague or Budapest, under Soviet Rule. If you are traveling to Austria, this is a great beginning to review your post World War II history. If you are a Graham Greene fan you’ve surely seen this. If not, this might just do the trick.