I wanted to watch The Third Man because I'd read a review of it - Ebert's probably - after seeing it pop up as an Amazon recommendation. The review was glowing, and made it sound like an entertaining and suspenseful film, but I never got around to buying it. No matter, when you have a parent who loves buying up any movie that catches his fancy.
Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, writer of cheap Western novelettes. He's arrived in Vienna after WW2, when the city is divided into zones policed by the various world powers, though the different forces do work together, some more easily than others. Holly's there at the request of his friend Harry Lime, but when Holly arrives at Harry's home, he learns Harry was hit by a car and died recently. Holly makes it to the funeral, where he attracts the interest of a British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Holly's more interested in the young woman he sees at the funeral, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who was Harry's main squeeze.
Holly does take notice of Calloway when he suggests Harry was up to no good, and Holly (the very picture of the ignorant American) grows indignant that Calloway is more interested in some "minor" smuggling than in a man's death. Holly sets out to learn the truth about Harry's death, with Anna's help. This investigation is hampered by several problems. One, Holly doesn't speak German, which makes communication, especially when Anna is occupied, difficult. Two, there are some discrepancies in Anna's papers, so Holly gets distracted with trying to save her from the Russians. Third, Holly's kind of an idiot. There's a fourth issue, but I won't divulge it here.
The part that resonated with me was Holly's dogged pursuit of justice for Harry. He wants to know if Harry was murdered, and if so, he wants to bring that killer to justice. Plus, I think he'd like to clear Harry's name somehow, rub it in Calloway's face. That kind of loyalty to one's friends appeals to me, but here, the downside is revealed. You don't know your friends as well as you thought, and you were better off that way. By the time you do learn, you've tangled yourself up in it, and put yourself in an ugly spot. Anna has a similar loyalty to Harry, but it's stronger. I don't think she had any illusions about what Harry Lime did, but it didn't matter. He had saved her life at one point, after she'd already survived a war. She understands acts of necessity more than Holly.
There's also the backdrop of the postwar era. The war may be over, but Vienna is still bombed out in places, deserted in others. Holly has a meeting at a Ferris wheel that's curiously empty. No one has the time or the inclination for such things (also it's winter). The various countries' police forces work together, but uneasily. Calloway knows what the Soviets will do to Anna, and it makes him uneasy, but he's in no position to confront them directly. Anything he does will have to be done more cleverly, so as to not disturb the balance.
Much of the film is shot tilted. everything with a slant, off-balance. Maybe the whole world's about to fall over. I don't know if it's deliberate lighting, or the quality of the VHS, but some of the people looked quite odd. Baron Kurtz resembles a Nosferatu, albeit one who can move about it the day time, but bundled up tight, his little dog clutched tight to his chest. There's a lot that, not just people with small pets (I assume because food is too scarce for large dogs, or else they ate all the large pets already), but just objects. Anna's landlady clutches her shawl close. The porter at Harry's residence has a broom, there's a small boy with a ball, Holly and his cigarettes. Grab hold of what you can and hold on tight, because there isn't enough to go around.
The theme for the film is one of those odd pieces that doesn't seem like it should fit. The two closest things I can think of that are similar are Cheyenne's theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, and the music for the opening sequence of Sherlock Holmes (the Downey Jr/Jude Law one), with that tinny pianny music. It hardly seems right for a movie investigating murder and the black market, but it works. It's catchy, for one thing, gets in your head and stays there. For another, the way it's played is just a little off-kilter itself. There were times I could swear Anton Karas was hitting the wrong notes, or plucking two strings simultaneously, on purpose. Just enough to make it sound rough, so things don't go quite smoothly.
The Third Man's a great movie, give it a watch the next time you get a chance.