Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Third Man, The (1949)


Main image of Third Man, The (1949)
Directed byCarol Reed
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
Produced byCarol Reed
Photographed byRobert Krasker
Screen Play byGraham Greene
Presented byAlexander Korda
 David O. Selznick

Cast: Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins); Trevor Howard (Major Calloway); Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt); Orson Welles (Harry Lime); Bernard Lee (Sergeant Paine)

Show full cast and credits

American Holly Martins comes to postwar Vienna in search of his old friend Harry Lime, but discovers things about him that he'd rather not have known.

Show full synopsis

Many people consider The Third Man (1949) the Greatest British Film Ever Made, though its Britishness is complicated. It's one of the few British films that deserves to stand alongside the great classics of international cinema. It's a reminder that British cinema flourished in the years immediately after World War II. Never before or since has there been such a glut of high-quality, commercially successful movies produced in this country. Between 1944 and 1949, British-made films included Henry V (1944), Brief Encounter (1945), A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations (both 1946), Brighton Rock (1947), The Red Shoes, Hamlet, Oliver Twist, The Fallen Idol (all 1948) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). This was the UK's one and only cinematic 'golden age'.

What's striking is how many of these famous and accomplished films were associated with literary prestige. Alongside the adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens were films written, or based on stories by, rising literary stars - Noël Coward in the case of Brief Encounter, Graham Greene in the case of Brighton Rock, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. But, unlike many literary adaptations today, so often dewy-eyed and technically unadventurous ventures in 'heritage', these films are cinematically accomplished too. They're also edgy and complex in tone, reflecting all the flux and uncertainty of a country recovering from war and adjusting to a new era.

The Third Man is a case in point. Set in post-war Vienna, it's a thriller about black marketeering and murder, whose lightness and wit combines with a sense of existential crisis brought on by the horrors of the conflict. Its richness comes from this combination - it's both a popular entertainment and a profound exploration of moral choice.

It's great cinema too, built on the rock-solid foundation of Graham Greene's world-weary script. Directed by Carol Reed, at the time regarded as one of the two or three greatest film-makers in the world, The Third Man is one of those films that's fixed in the collective imagination. It would be difficult to find someone who didn't recognise the film's atmospheric, sinister vision of Vienna and its zither music. And it has one of the most famous scenes in cinema - when the anti-hero Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, who is believed to be dead, appears without warning in a doorway, late at night.

Rob White

*This film is the subject of a BFI Film Classics book, also by Rob White.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Holly and Calloway (2:26)
2. Holly and Anna (4:44)
3. The ferris wheel (5:40)
Original posters
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Man Between, The (1953)
Noose (1948)
Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)
Greene, Graham (1904-1991)
Hamilton, Guy (1922-)
Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)
Howard, Trevor (1913-1988)
Hyde-White, Wilfrid (1903-1991)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)
Krasker, Robert (1913-1981)
Lee, Bernard (1908-1981)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
'Anti-Americanism' in The Third Man
Adapting The Third Man
Homosexuality and The Third Man
Producing The Third Man
The Origins of The Third Man
The Third Man - Character Studies
The Third Man - Critical Reception
The Third Man music