The Third Man (1949)

Directed by Carol Reed


Pulp novelist Holly Martins hops off the train in Vienna and quickly learns that his friend and host Harry Lime is dead.  His first response is to get drunk and attempt to fight the police officer who besmirches Lime’s name, calling him a criminal.  When a British official asks Martins to stay and give a lecture, he decides to use this time in Vienna to investigate his dear friend’s death.

The resulting mystery unfolds with inventive twists and turns that feel familiar by today’s standards.  This is a well-told story made more memorable by the music and extreme use of Dutch angles, with the camera weighted to one side.  The effect is similar to that of German Expressionism.  The Third Man is full of harsh shadows, strong angles and dark alleys.  While the story is a strong start, it’s the movie’s style that makes it last.  Also, Orson Welles.

The Third Man opens with a narration about the state of Vienna in this time period, during the war.  It is a divided city, literally, as four different nations control a different area of the city, with an international zone in the middle.  This narration has a disenchanted tone.  The speaker accepts the world as it is now, even if it’s far from sacred.  “I never knew the old Vienna before the war” he says, before casually addressing the black market and its tendency to kill people who don’t play this game the right way.  This is a bleak world in which perhaps only the fittest survive.

Before introducing our protagonist, the narrator comments, “Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities.  Bombed out a bit.”  Then we’re told about Martins and Harry Lime, almost with a passing thought, as if their story hardly matters.  It just happens to be taking place.  This sets up the idea that their story is completely insignificant, important only to them and not to the broader world.  Harry Lime himself who (spoiler) turns out to be alive, remarks on the meaninglessness of any individual life in the film’s most famous sequence.

Up until this point the story is just another mystery.  The circumstances that seem to have killed Harry and which reveal that he’s not dead matter only insofar as they move the plot along.  Harry has gone on the run because of some misdealing on the black market in which he sold diluted penicillin for a good profit.  In postwar Vienna penicillin goes for a steep price, and because of the dilution many patients died as a direct result of the medicine.

When Harry finally speaks to his friend Martins, they talk on the top of a Ferris wheel, the Wiener Riesenrad.  Harry points down towards the people who from above look like nothing more than ants.  How much is a life worth? he asks, and Martins has no answer, unsure how to deal with a friend who has sunk to such lows.

The first half of the film is about Martins maintaining a sense of idealism, even as evidence mounts that his pal Harry wasn’t such a great guy.  A British officer, Major Calloway, continually tells Martins to leave town and that his friend wasn’t exactly what he believed him to be.  Calloway begins as the clear antagonist, but soon his interaction with Martins takes on an almost comic routine.  They pester each other, but neither really pushes the other buttons.  This is made most clear when Sergeant Paine, who works under Calloway, is forced to rough up Martins but then tells him how big of a fan he is of Martins’ novels.

When Martins discovers Harry alive, he is at first thrilled, then confused.  When Harry discusses what has happened with him, Martins begins to lose hope in his friend and decides to help the police catch him.  Harry has faked his own death because of his black market dealings.

Martins’ arc throughout the film always deals with his sense of idealism.  An American writer of pulp westerns, he kind of is American idealism, and if this film has a symbolic connection to World War II, his involvement in this mystery reflects America’s involvement in the war.

Martins hops off of a train into a divided landscape, with no idea what he’s gotten himself into.  He’s unaware of what’s really going on in Vienna, and he sees his friend’s death as a simple murder.  Martins could never imagine that his friend has gotten himself into some kind of shit, that his death might have been to be expected or that he could have faked his own death.  Martins is unprepared for what’s about to happen, but everyone else around him, including Harry’s love interest Anna, has a deeper understanding of what it means to live and survive in Vienna.

Anna is a character who comes close to becoming Martins’ love interest, if only because of the genre’s expectations, but she never abandons her loyalty to Harry, even when she learns that his death was a ruse.  We don’t know exactly what Anna has been through, but we know enough to know that she has weathered the storm.  Like the other characters outside of Martins, she knows something our American hero does not.  There are unwritten rules, a sort of game to be played that no one refers to explicitly.

When Martins and his sense of duty turns against Harry, Anna is the one who warns Harry and sends him on the run.

The climax of the film takes place in the sewers under Vienna.  Martins and the police pursue Harry, and once cornered, Martins shoots and kills his friend.  This occurs after Harry has killed Sergeant Paine who, because of his childlike adoration of Martins’ novels, has been the most innocent character in the entire film.

Following this sort of showdown, Martins and Anna attend Harry’s second funeral, this time for real.  Though the bad guy has been killed, and the hero’s mission accomplished, there is a murky feeling looming over the scene.  Was Harry right despite Anna and Harry working to thwart his attempts to bring justice?  It’s hard to say that Martins did the wrong thing, only that he never truly understood what he was doing.  Martins’ American perspective is very black and white.  He comes from a place of nonintervention, arriving in Vienna after the worst has already passed through.  Martins never understands what war does to a person, what Anna and Harry lived through to make them the way they are.  To Martins, nothing has changed except his friend.  His response is to restore order in the only way he sees fit.

In the end, following the funeral, Martins hops out of his car and waits for Anna, much as he did following Harry’s first funeral.  Were this a happy ending, one that reinforced Martins’ point of view, Anna would stop and greet him.  Martins is the savory alternative to Harry’s criminal behavior.  He’s the right to Harry’s wrong, and the story goes that screenwriter Graham Greene had pushed for this kind of happy ending while Reed and producer David O. Selznick felt it an unlikely ending to this kind of story.

While Martins waits, he resembles a cowboy, calm and collected, outside a saloon.  He’s an archetypical American hero, and the girl is headed his way.  Except, Anna keeps on walking, paying him no attention as she heads offscreen.

This is the new world, Reed seems to be saying, and Martins’ view are outdated, fit to a simpler time when good and evil were more clear. Martins has gone from the excited tourist to a lonely man, much more akin to the typical noir hero.  The feeling is simply that nothing will ever be the same, and I have to imagine this was the sense following World War II, as the fighting touched so many cities and left them forever marred.

The Third Man‘s title refers to the mysterious figure Martins cannot track down in the case of Harry’s death.  This person turns out to be Harry himself, played by the legendary Orson Welles whose presence looms over the film even though he has less than five minutes of screen time.  While each character surely embodies some sort of idea, they are all just pawns, following or acting on instinct.  Welles’ Harry Lime is the only character who takes time to explain his distorted world view, one that is perhaps meant to reflect the nature of war.

The nature of Martins’ and Harry’s characters seems to demonstrate the way war corrupts one’s soul, and the ways so many of us can never understand that affect on the people who fight our wars.  Harry might as well be a returning soldier and Martins his childhood best friend who never left town.  Neither understands the other, and they likely find each other’s point of view equally disturbing.

What stands out to be most in The Third Man is Welles’ performance, the musical score and Carol Reed’s use of Dutch angles.  Almost every shot in the film seems to be tilted to one side, encouraging a sense of tension.  Along with the sharp shadows and desolate alley ways, this movie creates one of the strongest moods I’ve seen in a long time.

“You were born to be murdered,” Calloway tells Martins, and this mood hangs over the entire film, offering a sense that everything in this movie is headed in one fateful direction.  The titled frame continually gives off a feeling of gravity, something pulling us down.  In The Third Man choice is an illusion, and we’re all going to die, but it doesn’t matter.  In the end Martins doesn’t bemoan his fate or call after Anna.  She just walks by, and he lets her go.  This is the way of the postwar world, with nothing but loss.  Something like that.

From Roger Ebert:

“The Third Man” reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels.

“The Third Man” is like the exhausted aftermath of “Casablanca.” Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But “Casablanca” is bathed in the hope of victory, while “The Third Man” already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb. The hero doesn’t get the girl in either movie–but in “Casablanca,” Ilsa stays with the resistance leader to help in his fight, while in “The Third Man” Anna remains loyal to a rat. Yet Harry Lime saved Anna, a displaced person who faced certain death. Holly will never understand what Anna did to survive the war, and Anna has absolutely no desire to tell him.

Up Next: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Mystic Pizza (1988), Into the Abyss (2011)

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