At the end of the Second World War Holly Martens (Joseph Cotton), a hack Western writer, arrives in Vienna on the promise of a job from his childhood friend Harry Lime. On his arrival in Vienna however he discovers that Harry is dead and being buried that very morning. Dissatisfied by the police explanations of what happened to his friend Holly starts clumsily poking around himself.
The Third Man is based on a Graham Greene story, but Greene was gracious enough to say that the movie is a better version of the story than the subsequent novella. Part of the reason for this was the presence of Orson Welles, adding both his considerable charisma to the film as well as his writing skills, most notably on the famous “cuckoo clock” speech by which his character explains his view of morality to Holly.
The novel is written from the perspective of a military police investigator Calloway (Trevor Howard). The movie, however, takes Holly’s perspective and communicates brilliantly his sense of disorientation in an unfamiliar city – every camera angle is slightly off-kilter – and of isolation – just about everyone speaks (unsubtitled) German.
On top of all of this the cinematography of post war Vienna, reaching a climax in the sewers of the city, is exquisite and the zither soundtrack is a stroke of genius.
This is a funny, beautiful, exciting and bleak work of cinema, replete with Greene’s trademark concerns of morality, Catholicism and betrayal. It is probably the greatest British movie every made and another contender for my list of greatest final scenes of all time.