As a big fan of classic film noir it is to my utter embarrassment to have to admit to not having until now, finally seen ‘The Third Man’ in its entirety. The final motivating factor that pushed me over the edge was a statement written by my movie reviewing hero, the recently deceased Roger Ebert, when he said that whenever he met someone who had never seen ‘The Third Man’ or ‘Singin In The Rain’ (another movie I will get around to seeing eventually, although I am not the biggest fan of musicals admittedly) he didn’t look down upon them in snobbery, he just truly envied them for the experience they were about to have. And so with that, as a sort of a small tribute to the man who set the bar for approachable, unpretentious, but still all the more intelligent and sophisticated movie criticism, and who inspired myself and countless other (and better) writers to review movies, and also to just to look at the world of film in a different, and more complete way, I offer this review, imperfect as it may be of Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ released in 1949.
(This review will contain some crucial spoilers near the end, so read on at your own peril if you have not already seen this classic film.)
The Vienna of ‘The Third Man’ is an inescapable character all its’ own here. Few other cities in cinematic history fit their story as well as Vienna, Austria so does here. It is through this filter that we see the action of the fictional story so magnificently back dropped by the real life devastation caused by the severe bombing the city underwent. This is the Vienna just a few years removed from World War II, cut off into four separate sections controlled respectively by the French, British, Russian, and American authorities in each part. It is a city where the post war black market thrived in unparalleled fashion as we are told by the opening narration. It’s not just in the dust and rubble of the buildings that you see the fallout of war though, but in the faces of the people and characters in this movie. Major Calloway played by Trevor Howard, is a notable example. When he learns that Harry Lime the noted black market swindler, here played by Orson Welles has possibly been murdered his reaction isn’t anger or indignation over him being robbed of his moment in court, but simple relief that there’s one less crook he will have to deal with in Vienna. These are a worn out and forlorn lot, already beat to hell by the bombings and the years of endless fighting and now just trying to move on as best they can in the tattered aftermath, but you can still see the fog of war in their faces. In many ways this movie is like a dark, desolate continuation of the themes that carried Casablanca, showing the aftermath of the destruction that was then not yet begun, but it is here fully complete and realized.
The heroes of Casablanca and of The Third Man could not be more separated though. Holly Martins, played here with great earnestness by Joseph Cotton, is the antithesis of Humphrey Bogart’s colder and more nuanced Rick Blaine. Martins here is presented as a fresh faced and very trusting (a trait that will not serve him well here) naive soul just arriving in Vienna after receiving a letter of invitation from his old college friend Harry Lime, whose funeral it turns out is being held the same day of Martin’s arrival, whereas Rick Blaine had been in Casablanca running his nightclub long enough to know the scene well enough to hide in plain sight, and know when it was in his best interest to let a thing be and mind his own business. Where Rick Blaine was a cynical self interested businessman who “stuck his neck out for nobody” (until he found something worth fighting for that is) Holly Martins is from the very outset sticking his neck out time and time again trying to find the truth of what happened to his friend Harry Lime, even after several admonishments from just about everyone he encounters to leave well enough alone.
Ernst Deutsch, who has a face that would give even Bella Lugosi the creeps, plays Baron Kurtz, a friend of the late Harry Lime. He tells Holly that before Harry passed he gave him some special messages to give to him and to his girlfriend Anna Schmidt. This contradicts what Lime’s porter had told him previously about his friend’s death. The porter said that Lime had been killed instantly after he was struck by an oncoming automobile, and that his body was carried away by three men, whereas Kurtz mentions only two men in his reckoning, plus the fact that Lime lived on long enough to impart those final words to him. This leads Martin to start an investigation of his own. After finding no help at all from Major Calloway (Who he keeps referring to as Callahan throughout the movie) who as stated before, cares not how Harry Lime died, but only that he did indeed die he then proceeds to question everyone he can think of from Lime’s known acquaintances, the most mysterious and eluding of these subjects being the aforementioned third man. He does find an ally, although an ineffective one in Sgt. Paine, played by Bernard Lee as a kind hearted but oafish individual, the sort that buys the kind of anti-intellectual fluff that Martins writes in his popular pulp westerns (of the Zane Grey variety) that currently supply his living.
His investigation also leads him to question Lime’s aforementioned girlfriend Anna Schmidt, the beautiful but weary eyed Alida Valli in some terrific vulnerable, but not too vulnerable, acting work here. We are told that Lime had used his black market connection to save Anna’s life by setting her up with phony paperwork that would allow her to stay in Vienna, instead of having to be taken by force and relocated in Soviet Russia, since she originally hailed from Czechoslovakia and the Russians now controlled that country they considered anyone either presently or formerly of that region to be their own citizens, whether they wanted to be or not. Anna is grateful to Harry and was/is obviously in love with him, as we also sense that Holly is in love with her, both are hopeless loves though as Lime was/is too concerned with self preservation to pay Anna any real mind, and Anna is too consumed with her own personal grief, and has her defenses too keenly sharpened to ever allow an amateur like Holly Martins to penetrate them.
(Major Spoiler Alert)
The scene where Harry Lime enters the picture is among the greatest cinematic entrances I’ve ever seen. The perfect lighting, the camera angle, the sound of the footsteps, and that meowing cat, everything sets the mood for one of the more satisfying reveals in movie history. When that second story window light hits Orson Welles’ face and the two old friends exchange surprised smiles it’s as if Lime is rewarding Martin for his dogged pursuit of his own ghost. Even though Martin’s meddling has no doubt caused him severe headaches and complicated his affairs, he knows if nothing else that he has got a true friend in Holly Martin, and so later on in one of the film’s most famous sequence where the two of them converse while in an old Ferris Wheel, (that would have formerly been filled with children and young lovers, before the war but is now as deserted as the rest of the war torn city) he sets about recruiting him into his black market operation. It is during this scene that Orson Welles delivers one of his all time great monologues, which goes a long way to explaining Lime’s warped outlook on the world. I will quote it in full.
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Harry desperately wants Holly, one of the few tangible connections he has to his old life, in which perhaps a glimmer of his humanity still remained, to join him. Holly abides by a code that can never allow this to happen though, the same one his fictional western protagonists adhere to in his novels. And even if he didn’t, after the briefing he is given by Major Calloway where he learns that the watered down penicillin that Lime is peddling is responsible for the pain, suffering, and deaths of thousands of children throughout the city, he abandons whatever loyalty and respect he had for his former friend. The accepting of those atrocities still takes its’ time to set in on the all too trusting Holly, who at the time he learns this is still under the impression that his friend is dead, and he is consequently sent into a hopeless despair where he drinks himself into a stupor and then foolishly throws himself onto Anna, who also knows of Lime’s crimes, but who unlike Martins is unable due to her love and indebtedness to him to sever her loyalties as Martins eventually does. It is this fundamental difference in them that also prevents the two of them from ever coming together romantically as Martins so intently wishes they could.
Holly eventually cuts a deal with Major Calloway to help him assist in the capture of Lime, his price being that Anna, whose papers were confiscated by Calloway earlier in the film and are now in the hands of the Russian authorities be protected from deportation and allowed to escape the city. Anna thus finds herself in the midst of a rescue operation that she has no intention of participating in. “I will not be your price!” she explosively yells at Holly at the train station scene while the train rushes by without her. After that Calloway, sensing his plan unraveling, takes Holly to a children’s hospital filled with Harry Lime’s victims, and then fills the car ride afterwards with false flattery regarding one of his novels. The patronizing fails, but the guilt brought on by the all too sobering site of the dead and dying children works. Holly resolves to help find his friend.
Harry Lime is like Rick Blaine, if Rick Blaine had had no soul, and no compassion for his fellow man. It is one of the Welles, and the film’s most remarkable, and disturbing achievements, that Lime comes across so damn likable in the process. During the film’s climactic chase scene through the sewers of Vienna, we share in his terror every step of the way. It is, and I hate to keep making such grand overstatements, but it seems justified all the same, one of the best and most overwhelmingly suspenseful chase sequences I have ever seen. The ending shot that follows where our expectation is that of course our hero will ride off into the sunset with his damsel in distress, is turned completely on its head, as we watch Anna walk past Holly without so much as giving him the satisfaction of a single glance. Harry lights a cigarette and throws away the match as the camera lingers on him for a long while after this. It is, as an ending and a scene, again, completely brilliant.
This film makes many likewise brave choices, from its grand historical setting of post war Vienna and its magnificent ruins to its ever so memorable and remarkable music (that became a number one hit in the year of this film’s release), the constant and haunting zither score that serves as an all purpose musical accompaniment to the macabre story. Then you have the many tilted camera angles that lend a dreamlike trance kind of feeling to the overall affair, and the great use of larger than life shadows. Carol Reed here is in top form to say the least. He stuck to his guns while filming ‘The Third Man’ having to fight his producers on almost every decision I read. For that he deserves the gratitude of every movie lover who ever lived, as he created a noir masterpiece that is worth remembering for all times. There are movies that you call films, and films that you call movies. ‘The Third Man’ is one of those rare artistic delights that satisfies both of those particular aspects in spades. It is indeed a film with a capital F, but one that is enjoyable and enthralling enough to engage you the way that a less artistic movie thriller might also do, but when it’s over you are left with so much more to chew on and contemplate. I cannot wait to see this movie again. Thanks for the recommendation Roger. You were quite right to envy me this experience. ‘The Third Man’ will undoubtedly be a movie that will resonate with me for a long, long time to come, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Third Man gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.