You’ ve probably heard the basic story before. A no-nonsense hero distanced from society and searching for a job finds, instead, the diabolical underside of a grim society rendered like nightmare. Here, he’s played by Joseph Cotton and his name is Holly Martins, a pulp writer who’s been offered a job by his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in war-torn Vienna. When he gets there he finds that Lime is dead and he takes more interest in Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who may or may not know more about Lime’s supposed death than she is letting on. Martins, almost on cue, begins to question anything and everything, only to wonder whether his questioning was best for anyone.
The Third Man is a noir film. Furthermore, it is unabashedly a noir film. It does not attempt to subvert noir, or challenge it, or reinvent it. It simply desires to bring it to its highest artistry, taking the types inherent to noir, the loner anti-hero, the femme fatale, the diabolical villain, and rendering them with ingenuity and a near-mythic stature. The story is filled with twists and turns, as many noirs are, but it brings to the forefront not only a twisty, maze-like physical environment in Vienna but the twists and contortions in the hearts of its characters. Implicit in many noirs was the perpetual tragedy of both loneliness in a distance from society and social interaction and the heartbreak that, even in interaction, we are all perpetually lonely. And this was perhaps never more true than in the wounded, brittle Vienna of The Third Man.
The script is unusually strong then, functioning not just as a superficial thriller but drawing out the implicit human distance and decay at the core of its noir trapping. But if the script is strong, it’s interpreted with mastery. Carol Reed, not usually considered a truly top-of-the-line director, constructs a visual feast to die for. He paints Vienna with the expressionist gusto of a fever-dream, rendering it a distorted place to get lost in and perhaps, to never return from. The black-and-white cinematography utilized here is a textbook example of the form, rendering people and locations with stark emotion and coldness, seeing them more as shadows than full-fledged people who would reveal their entire natures to us. Just as we continually learn more about the film’s characters, Reed gives us more and less shadow, and moves his characters around in relation to shadow, to modulate what we do or do not know about them.
And while shadows do many things for a hurting world and a film that follows suit, they reveal as much as they obfuscate. Here, they spend the film obfuscating the truths of the world, but in their greatest moment they open up and expose the pinnacle of human decay, here personified by a man who needs no introduction. And yet the film gives him the greatest introduction of perhaps any character in any film. Words cannot express how fantastic Orson Welles is here. No film, not even Citizen Kane, reflects as much about Welles’ skill and his image as we see here. His opening scene is about as famous as any character’s. It depicts Holly frantically struggling to figure out the wounded, decrepit streets of post-war Vienna, everyone else in the film as lost as he is now that their city has been destroyed and replaced with this ravaged imposter. He hears footsteps seemingly from every direction, before turning around with the sound of a church bell, on cue, to introduce Welles’ Harry Lime, standing in the shadow, his face revealed between two beams of darkness put there as if they were positioned by the man just right to maximize his impact.
His expression is quintessential Welles. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. It’s a smug smile of amused superiority, a feeling of cruel mastery over the world. Here, his character is playing everything and everyone just like Welles would behind the camera, positioning himself for affect and then vanishing into nothingness like a magician with no logical or conceivable escape route. It’s silly, but Welles makes us believe the laws of logic gladly move to the side for a grand showman such as him. Hell, they might even take a bow. The whole film is about how he’s entrapped Holly Martins, but he’s done just as strong a job ensnaring us and daring us to question him in a scene that doubles as perhaps the wittiest and most malevolent character entrance in the history of film.
Lime here commands the decayed city, turning lights on and off for him, just where he wants them. More to the point, he reflects this city, a destroyed, decaying rubble filmed with a strong hint of expressionist dysfunction, the type of dysfunction Lime feeds on and uses to his heart’s desire. He is the product of this world, a place that is at once magisterial and magnetic, but no longer comfortable, honest, or hopeful. It’s the type of place we gaze on at in amazement and wonder, only to look back upon ourselves and ask how different it is from our own world. Filmed in post-War Vienna, we have here a location that reflects the world around it, something damaged perhaps beyond repair, where moral decay and confusion can run amok and no one can be sure of anything. The overall mood is of spellbinding graveyard pirouette, or a sardonic, even mordant requiem for all the world’s humans collectively depicted in a lyrical, yet inimitably droll fugue state.
It’s hard for any other performance to live up to Welles’ here, but both Cotton and Valli are uncommonly strong as characters who start out types and evolve into something far deeper. Cotton in particular manages to weave between the everyman we want to him to be and the loner we know he is, a character who comes to care about society beyond his own well-being but is afraid of what this means. For both of them, their highest moment comes at the film’s very end. Reed’s last shot, a famously static camera depicting Anna in the far, far background as she slowly walks toward Holly waiting for her in the foreground, is masterful. Cotton is off-to-the-side of the screen, hunched over and smoking, rendered increasingly small by the greyness of the road consuming him and Valli walking toward him. Or, I should say he assumes she is his walking toward him, but as she nears him she walks by without saying a word, giving us in her face and motion a sense of anger at Holly, but also a sense of loss. She knows the two can’t be together after what they’ve witnessed, and the secrets they now know about each other, even if she wants to be with him. Cotton’s reaction, subdued and honest and without a word, conveys that he knows this too but was unable to admit it until she did so for him.
The scene is consummately stately and professionally structured, its organized visuality composing itself rigorously and refusing to break to mirror the two deeply aching, brittle characters here who must occupy the bodies of strong people and organize themselves outwardly to hide their inner pain threatening to burst out. Here, and elsewhere, the film tries to find form in the innately formless decay of life, as it tries to find dreamy beauty in the nightmarish decay of Vienna. The fact that it tries to package all this emptiness and malaise in the guise of a stately thriller is all the more unnerving and discordant, for the seams and the difficulties of the material, the ethos of the destruction and pain, refuse to be covered up or packaged despite the filmmakers’ attempts. This adds a tension to the film, a subversive quality to its superficial presentation as a noir thriller that belies the ways in which all noir thrillers in reality must speak to an unstated pain in society that can only express itself through a darkened, gloomy, even cartoonish, artificially muckish vision of the world.
The distance, the un-reality of the characters and the distorted shadow of a world, allows the pains of reality to inscribe themselves in the media without destroying the world that produces them. The film, in its noirish inhuman fantastical gloom, reflects the trauma of a Europe destroyed by the human chaos of World War II and an England coping with that destruction. But it also reflects an England unable to address its trauma openly and with naturalism, or by setting the film in the nation it is to some extent about. It must, instead, inscribe that trauma in a film about another nation sharing Britain’s wounds, and British people bringing their wounds to another nation suffering from its own decay post-War. In doing so, it posits a statement of greater European pain that bridges national lines.
To this extent, the film’s zither score, about as famous a film score as the decade produced, also complements the deceptively fantastical and “thrilling” narrative as well as the greater danger and pain lying in wait underneath. Over-the-top, even zany and chaotic, yet haunting and unusually quiet, it’s an instrument of profound depth that works astoundingly well here. It’s never overtly depressing or grand, as many other scores from this era were – it actually sounds a little upbeat and jaunty, perhaps an act of subversion when one considers all the darkness around. It’s the kind of score a character with the spirit of an amoral amused inventor, the kind who couldn’t be bothered with somber emotions to match the somber world they inhabit, would provide. It’s the kind of music Harry Lime would like, perhaps having taken control over the film like the world he strives to control from the shadows and given us a score only a madman in love with himself could create (indeed, in an irony of note the famously controlling, egotistical Welles who loved power and played it with an amused smirk is sometimes believed to have taken up the director’s chair in secret, quite literally having taken control of the film from the shadows). Either way, the film retains a melancholy tone, and the tension between this quiet melancholy and the more zany chaos of the instrument works wonders for the complicated world inhabited by these characters.
All of which comes together in a unique whole capable of pure movie bliss, yet darkness and self-critique is never far away. For all its ability to transport us to another location, The Third Man is steadfastly critical of its transported American hero and his inability to understand the culture within which he has immersed himself ( in comparison to the other American, Lime, who rules over the city like an omnipresent shadow in a more striking implicit commentary on the then-becoming powerful US and its military, social, and economic presence in and control over Europe after the War). If we’re meant to exist in awe of some of Europe’s mystery and its decaying wounds, we’re also painfully aware that it has little room for the outsiders who want to use this as an opportunity to control and to seek power, as America would soon do. In this regard, The Third Man is a film acutely aware of the stage of the world at this time. It sees the greatest consequence of World War II in a globalized, interconnected world. For this world, it imagines not hope and excitement, but a great fear that such globalization would not bring connection and humanity, but power-mongering, imperialism, and above all human distance and selfishness. It captures, more than anything else, a realization that whatever America seeks in Europe, we display little interest in actually trying to understand other cultures. This is Holly’s greatest misfortune as he wanders around Vienna without ever bothering to understand what makes it tick. For all the decay he finds around him, he never once stops and bothers to think that America may be part and parcel with the cause. Or that he, as an American, could ever be hurt by the world’s destruction which he stands back and observes from afar.
And it is the great unstated misfortune of not only American militarism but the cinema of any nation, but especially Hollywood with its aspirations for worldly and conscious stories that tell tales of other nations and people far away in an attempt to appear cosmopolitan, literate, and aware of the world’s problems. The thing we go to movies like this for, the sense of wonder and distanced mystery, and the desire to view far-off lands and treat them with a florid unreality and a majesty, are the very things this film strives to accomplish. And they are also the very things it critiques. It implies that we, like Holly, can only look on in distance and pretend to want to care, that we can only tell ourselves we want to be involved. We are passive in a movie-theater. We cannot truly “live” the movie, as we tell ourselves we want to – instead, we are left distant, basking in something that is magisterial and fantastical to us as film-goers, but which truly hurts and wounds real people in the real world, people we know nothing of.
To this extent, the film is a bifurcated critique of the limits of film and the limits of the American imagination. In it, Hollywood cinema is a weapon of imperialist American smarminess, a tool used to exoticize and evoke the mystery of other locations without having to actually address those locations honestly and with respect. Holly is this American cinema, an entity lost in a location wondrous to us only because it has been destroyed by the world. The Third Man is the story of Holly being forced, for the first time in his life, to feel the consequences of this world, to move beyond his safety zone, and to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t equipped with the mental faculties to truly care for the world. We’d like to see ourselves as distant from all this decay, but we still try to enjoy it like Holly in the closed-off world of film land. Even with its lacquered cinematography, or perhaps because of it, The Third Man cracks open this glossy veneer, not letting us have it both ways: in our perpetual distance, we’re more lost than anyone, even Holly.