(CANAL + Image UK, Ltd.) “Death's at the bottom of everything... The world doesn't make any heroes... Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?... In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, and they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Carol Reed's The Third Man, released in 1949, is widely hailed as a masterpiece of the Film Noir movement. But what does it have to offer modern audiences? Well, a surprising amount. Unlike many films of a bygone era that are now of interest only to a select group of cinephiles, The Third Man's striking visual style, clever dialogue, and universal themes will appeal to just about anyone; and if you're interested in broadening the scope of your historical film knowledge, this is a good place to start.
The story concerns Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), writer of cheap novels, who travels to Vienna to work for his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon arriving, Martins learns that Lime has just been killed in a traffic accident. The scene in which he learns of Lime's death from Karl (Paul Hörbiger), the porter in Lime's building, is chilling in its construction. Karl speaks only broken English, and it takes him a while to explain to Martins that Lime is dead. Martins' face, as he finally understands the news, falls from cavalier good-humor to ashen seriousness in a moment. The director's choice to leave the film's German dialogue untranslated goes a long way to putting the viewer in Martins' shoes — alone and uncertain in a foreign land.
Martins spends the rest of the movie trying to get to the bottom of the incident. “Death's at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals,” admonishes Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British officer in charge of the investigation. Martins doesn't listen, however, and soon finds himself embroiled in intrigue, racketeering, and murder. Along the way, he meets Harry Lime's former girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), an actress in a local theater troupe.
Thematically, the film centers on Schmidt's and Martins' examination of their relationships with Harry Lime, who turns out to be a much less trustworthy person than either of them had thought. He is revealed as a mercurial criminal with little regard for human life. What troubles the two so deeply is the fact that they had always known and enjoyed Lime's devil-may-care attitude toward life; they simply never realized how far down the rabbit hole of self-interest it went.
Anna frequently calls Holly “Harry” by mistake, and Holly finds himself tempted to step into Harry's place as her lover. There's an especially good scene between them, one night at Anna's place, in which their roles — and their minds — start to become muddled with drink and loneliness. However, Anna is too damaged to love Holly, and Holly is too cynical to try very hard to change her mind.
The screenplay was written by Graham Greene, legendary novelist and author of Brighton Rock, The Quiet American, and The End of the Affair. He was described by William Golding as “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety.” Greene was a favorite of literary intellectuals, but he also knew how to plot a good thriller that would appeal to a wide audience. The Third Man may be the best example of this side of his genius at work. It moves along at a fast clip, never bogs down, and offers an entertaining crime drama parallel to a probing examination of human nature.
There's much more to be said about The Third Man — about its place in the Noir tradition, its use of light and shadow, and the camera angles which prompted director Reed's friend, William Wyler, to send him a spirit level and a note reading, “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” There's also Anton Karas' iconic score, played entirely on the zither, whose jaunty melodies lend a strange, almost carnival atmosphere to the whole affair. But you can find all that in the Film History books. For now, why not sit down and watch — or re-watch — a classic that's every bit as entertaining as today's big-budget spectacles.
For Fans Of: Memento, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, Brighton Rock
Why We Like It: Orson Welles, Graham Greene, smart thriller, philosophical overtones, excellent cast