Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Studio: London Film Productions
Why I DVRed This: So The Third Man is pretty much the definition of a classic movie. I’ve seen it probably five times and always try to come back to it every few years. Interestingly, I actually had it DVRed the last time TCM put it on, but my DVR erased it. Luckily, TCM seems to agree with me that it is a classic film and re-shows The Third Man nearly as regularly as HBO plays The Devil Wears Prada. While I might have chosen to DVR the film in any case, I was especially drawn to it recently because I have been talking about going to Vienna just because there’s a really cool-looking hotel and a great opera hall there (and I am one of those people… those people who like opera). Also, in Vienna, you can visit a museum dedicated to the film (and post-war Vienna as a whole)! That sounds fun.
Presentation on TCM: The Third Man was shown as part of TCM’s annual 31 Days of Oscar. The films shown the same night as The Third Man were connected like a before-and-after puzzle. Love Letters was shown before The Third Man and was connected by Joseph Cotten starring in both films, while The Fallen Idol was shown after The Third Man and was connected by sharing the same writer and director. Ben Mankiewicz introduced The Third Man as the film in which Cotten “gives perhaps his finest performance” before he discussed the director Carol Reed getting an Oscar nomination for his “stylish and inventive shot selections.” Though Reed did not win an award for best director that year, Robert Krasker received the Oscar for black and white cinematography for his work on the film.
After the film, Ben Mankiewicz came out again and discussed the film’s ending. He said, interestingly enough, that Graham Greene wanted the film to end with a happy ending, but that the executive producer (David O. Selznick) wanted a more “nuanced” ending. Mankiewicz also added the interesting tidbit that, at the last minute, Orson Welles refused to go through an actual Viennese sewer, so the film’s climax had to be filmed on a soundstage in London. I was delighted to get not one but two appearances from a TCM host, a rarity for the films I tend to DVR.
Synopsis: Holly Martins (Cotten), a broke Western writer, arrives in postwar Vienna as a guest of his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, when he arrives, Lime is dead! Martin begins to investigate the death and discovers that there was a “third man” (LIKE THE TITLE) present at the death. He runs into trouble from the investigating British officer, Major Calloway (Howard) and begins a love affair with Lime’s lover, Anna (Valli).
Analysis (contains spoilers): So longtime readers of this blog (all—maybe—three of you?) may recognize that I have a bit of an obsession with filmic subjectivity. I like when we see things from perspectives in which it’s clear there is a narrator even though the film itself is not “narrated.” Well, readers rejoice! The Third Man has both a narrator AND extreme subjectivity.
But then again, the narrator isn’t really a narrator. Rather, it’s merely a voice at the beginning of the film who frames the story and explains the rules of the diegetic world—how Vienna is divided into four zones, how the black market dictates all, and how, all that being said, Vienna doesn’t look much worse than any other postwar European city. The narrator never returns to the film after he introduces it, but he does make it clear that it is from his vantage point that we will see the story. Indeed, the narrator’s voice is that of Carol Reed, the film’s director, so the film truly is from his perspective. He announces to us that he “was going to tell [the audience] about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime.” Reed announces that he is in control and has chosen the story he wants to tell, and his narration further makes it clear that we will only see things from his perspective. Thus, we will not see “the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamor and easy charm” because he never knew it, as “Constantinople suited [him] better.” This is a bit of an in joke, as the story he tells us is certainly Byzantine, but it also reminds us that the world of the film is one based purely on how Vienna is now, not how it was. And as much as we may want to explore the old Vienna, we can’t, for Reed wants us hear the story of Harry Lime. While all films present the stories their directors wish to tell, few overtly announce their directors’ control in the opening montage, but of course few movies are as clearly framed by their directors as The Third Man is. Luckily, Reed was at his peak as a director when he made it (he even sacrificed his health for the film, forgoing sleep with the help of stimulants to catch even the best b-roll footage), so his subjectivity makes for a terrific film-viewing experience.
The Third Man is meticulously crafted, and every aspect of it is crafted toward the vantage point of Reed. The zither score kicks in whenever Reed wants us to recognize something or have connections (between scenes, between ideas) made. And the cinematography is diegetic as well, as we do not see imitations of life in any way but instead shot structure that shows us how Reed wants us to see the film. Thus, so much of the film is shot with these fun, tilted camera angles. They help remind us that everything we see in the film is itself slanted and abnormal, showing us how Reed wants us to see the story while also offering his point of view that all the world is atilt after being destabilized by World War II.
Indeed much of the film is “about” the condition of the postwar world. The story was conceived by Graham Greene, who wrote a book called The Third Man alongside the screenplay (the novella was written as a treatment for the screenplay, but it was released alongside the movie, like a high literary equivalent of Burger King selling a Jurassic Park comic book). In Greene’s original story, Martins and Lime are British instead of American, but the story works better with Americans (especially when those Americans are played by two great actors with a rich history together, not unlike that of Martins and Lime). After all, with Americans, The Third Man seems more prescient. In the decades after the war, Vienna became something like a microcosmic America through the accident of American mass culture which impacted Austrian culture way more than any direct American foreign policy did (what the Austrian historian Reinhold Wagnleiter calls the switch from “the Monroe Doctrine to the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine”). Austrian youth ended up obsessed with jazz and—later—rock and roll records, American books, and especially American movies. The result was that Austria as a whole became essentially an American mall for a few decades. Thus, for The Third Man, it only makes sense that it would be an American dictating the terms of the marketplace in Vienna!
More than all that, though, the film shows that the postwar world lacks moral clarity. And this is the struggle for Martins. He sees Lime as a childhood hero and friend, but the postwar Lime is a snake, selling often fatal, diluted black market penicillin to the needy of Vienna. Martins cannot believe it, in part because he and Lime are living in totally different worlds. Martins is a Western writer, and he seems to want to believe in the ideals of that genre: that there is an ordered world that can conquer and tame a rugged frontier as long as one man is brave enough, strong enough, and convicted enough to do so. Lime, on the other hand, sees the world as a warzone and recognizes that the entities in charge do no think in terms of right and wrong, of life and death. He tells Martins:
“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs — it’s the same thing.”
Martins counters that Lime used to believe in God, and he challenges Lime to confront the reality of the victims his drug-stretching scheme has made. Martins is still thinking in simplistic terms of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and justice. Lime is beyond that. He is a man of shadows and deceit, trying to take advantage of a destroyed world. And he occupies a (to Martins) foreign new vantage point in which he distances himself from his deed and sees his victims as merely dots seen from above the world.
Of course, the way Martins sees the victims is from his own vantage point, one rooted in outmoded ideals. Reed masterfully captures these separate vantage points filmically. When we see Martins, his shadow often precedes him and, as in most film noirs, towers over him. It is as though Martins’ rigid belief system and mythic understanding of the world are a burden on him and weigh down every aspect of his being. He cannot possibly understand the truth about his friend because he cannot possibly see past his own shadow, his own beliefs. Lime, on the other hand, successfully navigates the crevices. When we first see Lime, Martins is drunk and unable to see into the shadows. Lime, however, is watching a cat do just as he does—walk between worlds of light and dark with complete immunity. When Welles’s face ends up perfectly lit, he looks natural and comfortable as Reed’s own vantage point—the camera—zooms in. We see instantly how charming Lime can be if forced into the light (in part because he’s played by an iconic and charismatic star), but we also see how successful this character is at hiding in the darkness on the edges of the world. Lime lives and flourishes in the liminal spaces created by the destabilization of Vienna, a city that itself has four internal borders now due to the occupation zones, and Lime works them all, using the underground sewer system as his own highway.
In addition to the cracks between worlds, The Third Man shows the main world as a dizzying place. We see, for instance, Martins and others navigate a series of spiral staircases, and Martins literally spins around when he first sees Lime. But only Lime seems able to navigate these spinning realities. He is, of course, the only one truly 100% aware that he faked his own death, so the reveal that he is alive is not a reveal to him. But he also physically controls the world by being able to make a path in the shadows and the circles. It’s no wonder he makes his big speech and first face-to-face conversation with Martins aboard a Ferris Wheel, a contraption that both towers over the world and spins. Totally comfortable in the rotating amusement park attraction, he points down to the tiny people below, dots at that vantage point, and asks if anyone could care about a dot disappearing. Martins is sickened by it because of the romance he writes about and believes in, and he is naturally sickened by Lime’s request that Martins see the world his way and be cut in on the scheme. But really he just can’t see how Limes can view the dots as anything other than humans just as he cannot understand how anyone can manage the dizzying realities of Vienna. In another way, though, he cannot understand how someone can be so good in some ways (Lime is charming even while discussing dead children) and so bad in others.
This is an American conflict. It is the battle between what is right and what is real, but it is also a battle between the lies Americans believe about their country and the realities Americans refuse to recognize. Martins believes in the legends and the myths, but Lime is a new type of American who recognizes what America is to become—a nation on the rise because of an ability to dominate a world off center through tricks, capitalism, and ruthlessness. Lime tells Martins that “the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories,” and that’s ultimately Martins’ problem: He doesn’t recognize that the world is not what it is in his Westerns. While that world might never have existed, it certainly doesn’t exist now, not in Vienna.
Interestingly, though, Martins clings to that certainty of the old ways, especially when he is in the center of the world and not in those liminal crevices on the outskirts of the frames. It is interesting that Martins (and the audience) gets his facts about Lime in a montage. He learns a ton, but we learn nothing but the basic fact—that Lime is running black market drugs. We accept the truth because Martins does after getting hard evidence (photos, fingerprints, drug samples) that we only see in passing. Thus, Martins gets some tangible evidence and hard facts, where we only get subjective realities. But for Martins, everything he knows about Lime is now up in the air, as he cannot rectify the Lime he remembers from youth with the Lime he know has hard facts about in Vienna. Anna, who I have failed to mention up to now, although she is a fascinating character worthy of much analysis, tells Martins that “a person doesn’t change because you find out more,” but for Martins, everything has changed. He realizes he needs to help put a stop to Lime’s scheme and that do so he’ll have to enter the shadows to ultimately kill Lime.
And that death is a remarkable scene. Lime is chased through the sewers of Vienna and shot at from a distance by the British. He fires back into darkness, shooting a man cowardly rather than heroically. Martins is the final pursuer, and he would likely prefer to either not kill Lime at all or to at least kill him in a dignified way like would be done in a Western. Instead, he shoots Lime in the back while Lime dangles from a ladder. The look in Lime’s eyes when Martins is about to shoot him is incredible. It’s a look of sadness and shame but also a smirk. In a sense, it gives satisfaction that his attempts to bargain with his moral ambiguity are ultimately failures—he knows he’s a coward who shoots at enemies in the dark and gets shot in the back. But in another sense, the scene seems to show Lime smiling because Martins has finally gotten his hands dirty and entered the modern world.
Regardless, the world of The Third Man is a dizzying world of liminal spaces in which certainties are proven to not exist and in which bad things happen. Writing at the LA Review of Books, Martin Zirulnik refers to two Viennas, one that is comically ironic, and “one that exists in the margins of what’s presented on-screen, the one that only just eludes viewing… [and is] a truly miserable and humorless place.” This humor idea brings up the final thing I found particularly interesting on this latest viewing of The Third Man. For a dark dark dark movie, it really is a ton of fun. There’s a delightful mirrored structure (the film starts with Lime’s death and ends with it), a hauntingly upbeat zither score, some of the best lines ever in cinema (including the famed cuckoo clock speech that Welles claims to have written, although he also claims to have written all his dialogue in the film), a fascinating mystery, surprising twists, comic scenes, suspense, great acting, great shots, and really great pacing.
And finally, I love the shot at the end. Martins gets out of the car and stands cool, like a cowboy hero, to wait for Anna. She walks and walks and walks, and then walks right past him. Interestingly, the shot is long and stable—it is one of the only long shots in the film that is focused and centered and not askew—and suggests that the world is once again stable for Martins. He no longer will have moral dilemmas such as recognizing his friend as a killer, but he still has to face the consequences of killing Lime and ruining Anna’s life. She could run away with Martins and save herself, but she has avoided facing the reality of Lime’s evil, so why should she start dealing with his or Martin’s evil after Lime’s death? The touch of evil is now on Martin, and so there are consequences for his dabbling in the corners and the sewers.
So Lime was right after all—there are no heroes in the real world.
Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Um, obviously. I think I could watch this film a thousand more times and notice a thousand more interesting details or topics of analysis. It’s truly a classic.