When it comes to the aesthetic and tone of film noir, there is perhaps no more compelling entry to speak of than The Third Man. Carol Reed’s 1949 motion picture is that stuff movies are made of. It brims with atmosphere, style and pathos. Featuring a screenplay by Graham Greene, cinematography by Robert Krasker and an unforgettable score by Anton Karas, this is indispensable cinema.
It’s interesting to note just how vital sound is to The Third Man. Karas’ score, performed on the zither, propels the events with a sort of miserable jolliness. There’s always a hint of darkness, like something’s not quite right in the endless Viennese stone streets, and the undertones of raw viciousness always threaten to surface.
Joseph Cotten stars as the American writer Holly Martins, a man with a silly name and a certain naïveté. He’s visiting Vienna in hopes of reconnecting with his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Unfortunately, he’s greeted with the news that Lime has been killed. He attends the funeral and is told by a Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) that it would be best if he didn’t stick around.
Informed of Lime’s apparent criminal past, Martins decides to remain in Vienna for a while. Something isn’t sitting right and he begins to think that his pal’s death wasn’t an accident after all. He meets Lime’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and starts to put things together. Calloway eventually tells Martins the horrible truth about his friend, which leads to yet another startling revelation.
The Vienna Martins explores has been torn apart by war, with sections of the city dedicated to American, British, Russian, and French forces. There is suspicion everywhere and Martins is hopelessly innocent. He believes he can find the truth in this morass of darkness and corruption. He even believes the best about his pal Lime, at least for a time.
Reed, who fought David O. Selznick constantly over the details of The Third Man, sets things up on location and sinks his teeth into the context and setting. There are still piles of stone throughout the city and things really do feel fragmented. There’s something in the way the characters scurry through the streets, in the way they fight the shadows.
And the world is presented as off-kilter, with Krasker’s nearly excessive use of Dutch angles setting things as not quite right. The angles suggest an incapacity to take information at face value and the wide shots twist more than they inform. Figures are hidden in the dark for a time, until the light from a window betrays them. A balloon salesman is a shaded horror against the walls of Vienna.
Martins is the guide through this world, but one wonders if he’s capable of thinking clearly. He admits he’s little more than a drunk hack, plus he lets his feelings lead him around. He falls for the girl, even though her devotion to Lime is without question, and he holds out hope for the movie’s final glorious shot. He’s spirited, though, so there’s that.
Welles’ Lime is his superior in just about every way and that stings. Not only does he make a resounding entrance, he’s traversed the dubious moral ground and has made his decision. He doesn’t see the world as Martins does and one wonders about their relationship. He justifies his actions by referencing the Borgias. He doesn’t need to make another damn cuckoo clock.
There’s also the girl. In most films noir, the girl is the object of despair and the subject of what leads the protagonist off course. In The Third Man, she’s part of a larger scheme. She’s already gone, already a part of the venality of Vienna. She knows what to expect and understands what she’s getting into. There’s a reason she “slips up” when she calls Holly by Harry’s name.
But then again, nearly everyone in The Third Man struggles with names. These little identifiers, the labels that hold people to their own worlds, mean little in the sea of gloom. Martins calls Calloway by the wrong name, while a Dr. Winkle (Erich Ponto) spends some time correcting pronunciation. Even the name on a tombstone is incorrect, for crying out loud.
The Third Man fascinates because it juxtaposes two experiences. The American postwar experience was one of hopefulness. There was little to think about on the ground; the continent had survived intact, so why wouldn’t one be optimistic? But the European postwar experience was drastically different, with rubble and blood still sticking to the rocks. Why would hope exist in such a place?
There are exiles everywhere in the great films noir, whether they’re piloting through crime and punishment as in Double Indemnity or meandering through each other as in The Big Sleep. With Reed’s The Thin Man, the exile takes his show on the road. And he doesn’t like what he finds.