The Third Man
Originally published in Crime Time 27: the Key Crime Movies Issue.
"Everyone ought to go careful in a city like this."
Lists are both pernicious and essential. Pernicious because they impose an illusion of objective order upon subjective opinion (fickle public memory means that populist 'Best of' lists invariably feature too many movies or TV programmes or albums which have appeared within the past three or four years); essential for precisely the same reason, because they force us to analyze just why we admire or prefer one movie or book active opinion (fickle public memory means that populist 'Best of' lists invariably feature too many movies or TV programmes or albums which have appeared within the past three or four years); essential for precisely the same reason, because they force us to analyze just why we admire or prefer one movie or book above another.
Why, then, do I admire The Third Man above all other film noirs? To begin with, it's made by a British director from a script by one of the greatest British writers of the twentieth century, and in a time when the British film industry reflexively genuflects to Hollywood's lowest-common- denominator requirements, producing almost nothing but Mockney gangster knock-offs, brainless farces, and heritage pieces, that's something to be celebrated. Then there's the happy confluence of talent and setting: post-war Vienna's mixture of wedding-cake architecture and bleak bomb sites, sumptuously photographed in black-and-white by Robert Krasner; Anton Karas's zither music; the performances of the leads and the supporting cast, all beautifully playing against the grain of genre type; Graham Greene's economical and allusive script; and most of all, Carol Reed's confident direction, from the famous skewed angles and enormous shadows that lend everything a nightmare quality, to the tight editing which ensures that every shot contributes to the narrative, his discovery and championing of Anton Karas, and his insistence that Welles play Harry Lime, against distributor David Selznick's forceful objections -- even the laconic, distancing voice-over which introduces the story is his. But most of all, there's the story itself, with its collision between everyman hero Holly Martin's naive romanticism, and Vienna's post-war corruption and the atomization of the idealism that defeated the Nazis -- an atomization which is literalized in the division of Vienna into zones, each controlled by one of the four occupying powers which encircle the city's centre.
From the first minute of the film, when Holly Martin (played with a nicely judged and typically American mixture of bafflement and aggression by Joseph Cotton) walks under a ladder on his way to the apartment of his childhood friend, Harry Lime, we know he's heading for trouble. Martin, a down- on-his-luck hack writer of Westerns, has come to Vienna to take a job with Lime, but he discovers that his friend is dead -- killed in a road accident. Falling in love with Lime's girlfriend, Anna (played by one of Selznick's contract actors, Alida Valli, with affecting vulnerability and toughness), Martin decides to discover the truth behind Lime's death -- most particularly, who was the mysterious third man who was present when Lime was knocked down by a truck? But nothing in Vienna is as it seems. Martin is mistaken for a literary writer by the addled promoter Crabbin (Wilfred Hyde-White), and for the murderer of the porter of Lime's apartment building by a crowd of on-lookers; he mistakes a taxi driver for an assassin, and a parrot for someone in distress; Anna is not only an actress by profession, but quickly proves to be an illegal refugee, with a forged passport; and famously (read no further if you haven't yet seen the film), the body buried in Harry Lime's grave is not that of Harry Lime.
The part of Harry Lime is what Orson Welles called an ideal star part -- he plays the character at the centre of the movie, yet he makes his entrance only at the beginning of the third reel. This isn't to detract from his marvellous performance, of course, by turns impish and Machiavellian, a spoiled boy full of restless intelligence and profound cynicism. We're just as drawn to him as strongly as Holly Martin (and we remember that birds were once trapped in lime); Martin can't bring himself to the final betrayal until the British military policeman, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), shows him the full horror behind Lime's glib rationalisations -- children crippled by the diluted penicillin Lime was peddling on the black market. Three of the film's iconic moments are Welles': the sly, amused look he gives us when a light from a window first reveals him, lurking in a doorway; his speech about the Borgias and the cuckoo clock (written by Welles and loathed by Greene) given after his edgy confrontation with Holly Martin in a cabin of a huge ferris wheel; his desperate flight through the sewers. The fourth iconic moment, though, belongs to Carol Reed, who insisted that Greene write an ambiguous ending. It's the long, steady shot of Holly Martin, finally shorn of his illusions, waiting for Anna as she walks towards him down the long cemetery avenue -- and walks past him (and us), out of the movie and into whatever the world has left for her. It's the perfect ending for a great film noir in which human stories of love and betrayal take place in the shadow of international politics, and which was perhaps the first film to fully embrace the ambivalence of the second half of the twentieth century -- an ambivalence that's still relevant to the troubled times in which we live today.
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.
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