‘The Third Man’ is morally ambiguous but unquestionably great
*This review will avoid some of the story’s major details
In the years immediately following the second World War, many of Europe’s countries were left in a pile of rubble, their economies destroyed, and their people still reeling from the all too real nightmare they had endured for 6 long years. Even some of Europe’s most historic, near-mythic cities had been the victim of intensive bombing or urban warfare, or both in the worst cases. Among said cities which were forced to endure a period of strenuous recovery was Austria’s capital, Vienna. Vienna was in an even greater political quagmire than Berlin. While the latter was occupied by two of WWII’s victorious nations, Vienna had four adoptive fathers, the British, the French, the United States and the Soviet Union. What greater setting, with so many cooks in the kitchen, for a tale of suspense, deception and that moral ambiguity the noir genre is so fondly known for?
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), author of various western paperbacks, has only just arrives in Vienna at the request of his an old friend he has not seen in year, Harry Lime (Orsen Welles), who has promised him a job opportunity in the Austrian capital, when he learns of Harry’s death. After a day or so under state of shock and drunkenness, Holly’s curiosity grows as to the circumstances under which his pal’s luck ran out. The porter (Paul Horbiger) of the apartment complex where he stayed explains that Harry was smashed into by a passing truck as he tried to cross the street, a story which the British Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), responsible for the investigation, believes, but other witnesses and clues seem to point to a different sort of conclusion, albeit one Holly cannot point his finger towards with certainty at this stage. The plot thickens all the more once Holly meets Harry’s former lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who may know more than she is revealing. As Holly races across Vienna, interrogating more contacts and annoying Major Calloway, who insists that Harry may have deserved what he got for the sort of racket he was involved in prior to his passing, a incredible twist puts everybody’s conceived notions into a tailspin.
Carol Reed’s The Third Man is film noir of a different breed. Many of the genre’s recognizable hallmarks are there for viewers to appreciate, yet the director and his cast give the film an altogether different life and set it apart from the majority of other entries. Here is a film in which all of the socially and politically discomforting feelings which oozed their way into the psyche of Americans following World War II are present in some surprising ways, only that this story is set across the Atlantic where the majority of combat occurred. It is as though Reed, clearly fascinated by the familiar noir characteristics, decided to put his own stamp onto the genre by taking Americans (the two in the film and the audience) to the region understood to be where all their post-war anxieties originated. There is mistrust, there are villainous individuals, and others still who, in true noir fashion, are less heroic than is typically seen on screen but must fill the role of ‘hero’ nevertheless. There is a nasty plot and a nastier truth at the heart of it all, all of which is dressed up in stylistic cinematography which artificially and beautifully arouses the senses in both comforting and discomforting ways. It still feels different due to its location and the plentiful, very un-American (and therefore a-typical in a sense) supporting characters which populate this universe.
There is a brilliant bit of exposition (a rarity) at the very start of the picture in which a voice over briefly describes the situation in post-war Vienna, namely how four major powers have come into the same city and each chosen a quarter of it to administer. Smack in the middle was the international neighbourhood where none of the quartet members had sole governing powers, it being policed rather by lawmen of all four foreign states. The most critical line in this short sequence is about how these four powers do not even share the same languages, save the British and the English, and even then citizens of both nations lay claim to rather differing mannerisms. Vienna, therefore, was at that time a city which had lost its true identity, forced to reckon with the aftermath of terrible suffering endured during the war, which is ostensibly what so many noir films speak to from a decidedly American perspective. The protagonist, Holly Martins, is an American, yet a displaced one, having invested his hopes for a brighter future in a country he is unfamiliar with, where the majority of the population speak a language he does not comprehend. Therein lies some of the film’s brilliance, that being in bridging together the familiarity of film noir, in this case emanating from an unfamiliar setting (a foreign country) with a new kind of protagonist, in this case a familiar American. The entire film therefore works as an amazing contradiction in which all the pieces fall perfectly into place. Just as was argued in the previous paragraph that the setting makes Reed’s film stand feel unique, that same element of The Third Man which one might assume would make the film completely different ends up being the one that actually support its inclusion within the genre, whereas the one element that would normally be a shoe-in as noir trope ends up being the oddity.
Speaking of the aforementioned Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten, an actor who more than once collaborated with the inimitable Orson Welles (their most famous effort being of course Citizen Kane, often referred to as the greatest movie ever made), is exceptional in The Third Man. His performance exudes a certain credibility which makes it very easy for the viewer to cheer him on on his excursions throughout the streets and bars of Vienna. Granted, he may not be cut from exactly the same cloth as other protagonists so often portrayed in noir, for he is more innocent and pure than his predecessors, that quality makes him an excellent hero for the story for all the previously mentioned reasons, chiefly that his expedition to Europe opens his eyes onto some horrific things about how bad the human psyche can turn (much like the American soldiers before him). Cotten, with his friendly face, mannerisms and line delivery makes the character of Martins a lot of fun to watch. Any moment when he may be in danger will have viewer genuinely hope he escapes unscathed. In a film ripe with entertaining performances, it is nice to know that the main actor gives the best one instead of being upstaged by those supporting him. Nevertheless, those doing the supporting are quite good, including Alida Valli, who plays Anna with an air of incurable melancholia. She loved Harry, despite her apparent acknowledgement of the sort of schemes he was engaged in. She less the femme fatale of the story and more a fatalistic woman who has learned to live with the ignoble state of her home country. Trevor Howard is equally excellent, even though his character sees things differently insofar as his very chirpy, pithy British attitude keeps him going despite the awfulness which has infested Vienna like an unstoppable virus. James Bond fans will notice a much younger, more stocky Bernard Lee as Maj. Calloway’s right hand man.
The sense of unmistakable paranoia is fleshed out by director of photography Robert Krasker’s phenomenal work. Shooting in Vienna, it would seem a given that a film should look gorgeous, but that is not exactly what the film is aiming for, nor is it what the film should aim for. This is a physically beautiful place whose face has been heavily scarred, and those scars have tampered with its inner character. Hence, Vienna, in addition to looking quite attractive in some scenes, looks gloomy, even downright spooky in others. This is a far more sinister, uncontrollable Vienna than most viewers are accustomed to seeing. The brilliant cinematography plays a tremendous role in setting the tone throughout the film but especially in two key sequences which involve Holly giving chase to someone, once on street level and once in the cities sewage system. Supporting the sights is the sound, the most memorable and inventive being of course the score, brought to life by Anton Karas’ zither score, sounding much like a guitar (and resembling a lute) but with much greater twang.
There are few noirs that can match the class and personality found in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, try as they might. Here is a film many claim as one of the all time greats and one would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.