Blog Directory CineVerse: Why The Third Man comes in first for so many

Why The Third Man comes in first for so many

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949, The Third Man stands as a classic of its time—and for all time—75 years later. The narrative unfolds in post-World War II Vienna, which is divided into zones controlled by the Allied powers. Holly Martins, an American pulp writer portrayed by Joseph Cotten, ventures to Vienna to reunite with his old friend Harry Lime, played unforgettably by Orson Welles. However, he soon learns of Lime's demise in a perplexing accident. Martins's quest for truth plunges him into a labyrinth of deceit, corruption, and intrigue. Joining the cast are Alida Valli as Lime's paramour, Anna Schmidt, and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, a British military police officer aiding Martins in his inquiry.

To listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted earlier this month, click here. For the latest Cineversary podcast episode, celebrating The Third Man’s 75th anniversary, click here.

How do we love The Third Man, shining as brightly as ever in its diamond anniversary year? Let us count the ways:

  1. There’s a wealth of top-notch talent involved, including screenwriter Graham Greene, co-producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, director Reed, cinematographer Robert Krasker, and the stellar actors already mentioned.
  2. It represents a fascinating multicultural story and features a melting pot of performers: It’s a film primarily made by Brits and mostly populated by European actors in smaller roles but also boasting two acclaimed American thespians.
  3. The fact that it was shot on location in war-ravaged Vienna, and not on a London set or Hollywood soundstage meant to replicate that European city, adds verisimilitude to the look and vibe of the entire picture. The striking Viennese architecture juxtaposed against crumbling edifices, cracked stairs, and glistening cobblestone streets creates an unforgettable visual template.
  4. The expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting design by Krasker, especially in nighttime outdoor scenes, is one of the finest examples of stylistic black-and-white cinematography ever created. The impossibly grandiose shadows he was able to conjure and the monochromatic canvas of high contrast produced remain a visual marvel.
  5. The screenplay by Greene remains one of the greatest narratives of any era, a masterfully constructed and brilliantly paced cinematic story that benefits immensely from wonderful dialogue, keen transitions between scenes, and sudden twists that compel the viewer to pay closer attention as the story progresses. The standout dialogue scene remains Lime’s cuckoo clock speech, delivered superbly by Welles, lines of which he contributed himself, but the entire exchange between him and Holly on the Ferris wheel, which spans a mere 300 seconds, is a masterclass in superlative screenwriting and directing. But the opening voiceover narration, spoken by Reed, also perfectly sets the scene. Recall, too, the back and forth between Holly and Calloway and how the major always maintains this verbal intelligence over Holly with great lines like “You were born to be murdered,” “Death's at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals,” and, after correcting Holly for calling him Callahan, “Calloway—I’m English not Irish.”
  6. The Third Man boasts perhaps the greatest delayed entrance of an enigmatic character in movie history. The buildup to Lime’s reveal in that dark doorway, which occurs at the 62-minute mark of a 95-minute picture, is the stuff that film legends are made of. “The Third Man presents such a nonstop visual experience that it is easy to miss what a small, seat-of-the-pants picture it essentially was,” wrote Criterion Collection essayist Lucy Sante. “Consider, for example, that Anton Karas, without whose score the movie would be substantially different, was found on location, playing in a restaurant…The Third Man is in fact a brilliant succession of dice throws, a borderline counterintuitive combination of disparate elements that somehow come together as if they had been destined to do so. It is a singular object, a fluke, a well-oiled machine, a time-capsule item, a novelty hit. There has never been another movie quite like it.” This famous delayed appearance, which excites an anticipatory audience with delight once this titular character and prime motivator of the story is shown, may have inspired similar delayed character reveals in later films. Consider Omar Sharif’s Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, Henry Fonda’s villainous Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s belated appearance in Terminator 2, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in Seven, and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
  7. The zither-ific score by the previously unknown Anton Karas became the third biggest-selling album of the 1950s, proving immensely popular worldwide.
  8. The Third Man may have been a forerunner to more modern spy thrillers, inculcating a morally disconcerting postmodern worldview in motion pictures, and serving as a delicious study in contrasts, according to John Miller with TCM. He wrote: “The Third Man works on many more levels than merely the "entertainment" that Greene termed it to be…it is an early example of a cold-war intrigue that, while not depicting a single spy, can be seen as a prototype for spy thrillers to come. It also works as a study of post-WWII morality with Harry Lime viewing his victims not as human but as far-removed dots that stop moving. It is also a character study featuring a hopeless love triangle… The Third Man rewards repeated viewings because it goes far beyond being a witty and exciting mystery thriller. It flips all expectations on their heads by featuring an attractive embodiment of villainy and ineffective heroism; an enjoyable sense of cynicism and a bleak view of romance; a calming sense of chaos and a nostalgic vision of decadence. And when you meet Harry Lime, prepare yourself for a smiling justification for everyday corporate evil in the post-war modern world.”
  9. It’s difficult to name-drop films that may have been directly influenced by The Third Man; Welles’ Mr. Arkadin and the 1997 Croatian remake Treca Zena spring to mind. But this only emphasizes how unique the picture truly is and how challenging it was in the years following its release to ride its coattails. Interestingly, The Third Man may have been inspired by more films and books than vice versa. Predecessors include M, Morocco, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Ministry of Fear, The Stranger, and Les Miserables.
  10. The British Film Institute placed The Third Man number one on its list of the greatest British films of the 20th Century. Additionally, it ranked #2 and #4, respectively, in a Time Out poll and a Total Film survey of the best British films of all time, and in 2005 BBC TV’s Newsnight Review viewers chose it as their fourth favorite movie ever. The American Film Institute named it #57 in its 1998 list of the top American films, while The Third Man earned fifth place in the AFI’s Best Mystery Films list.
This is often categorized as a film noir, yet it’s different from films established in the noir canon. Like other noir works, it utilizes a quite expressive lighting scheme evocative of film noir, featuring high-contrast lighting and exaggerated shadows in a gritty urban environment. It is this lighting style that makes possible arguably the most famous onscreen introduction of a character in motion picture history—the shot when Harry is revealed in the dark doorway. The film also puts us off-kilter with canted (tilted) camera angles utilized for many shots, and the filmmakers utilize wide-angle lens distortions and extreme facial close-ups to further purport this domain of strange, suspicious characters.

But while The Third Man’s milieu is a gritty urban environment endemic to so many classic noirs, the architecturally Old World Vienna in this story is a bombed-out, rubble-ridden cesspool of corruption, moral decay, and surveillance. Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago this is certainly not. Further evidence that this does not share the same DNA as proper noirs is the zither music soundtrack, which can sound jaunty and playful, deviating considerably from the traditional orchestral or jazzy type score prevalent in noir. The zither sounds mockingly shrill at times, as if revealing an undercurrent of pessimism and a tinge of tonal irony. This is quite idiosyncratic as musical accompaniment, with nothing else to truly compare to it.

Many scholars point to Carol Reed—director of several notable works, including Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Oliver!—as the irrefutable driving creative force behind The Third Man, and for compelling reasons. Reed chose to film on location in war-battered Vienna, a decision that lends valuable authenticity to the visuals and the entire mise en scene. Consider, too, that he was a fitting choice to helm this movie, as he was in the British Army’s wartime documentary unit. He refused to cast anyone but Welles to portray Harry Lime, which may have been the most consequential decision he made on the production. He resisted pressure from Selznick to imbue more American elements into the production and from Greene to bring Holly and Anna together at the conclusion. We can thank Reed’s vision and persistence for the cynical, unsentimental, and darker tonality that makes The Third Man a more lasting work.

As mentioned, Reed eschewed a conventional symphonic score, multi-instrumental soundtrack, or Viennese waltzes, opting instead to take a chance on Karas, an unknown musician, who impressed the director with his zither playing. This was a major risk: Reed fought with the producers to keep this solo instrumentation in the film and won.

Additionally, Reed wasn’t afraid to have characters speak in German or other non-English languages for long stretches with no subtitles, which perhaps helps us more closely identify with Holly, the American outsider surrogate for the audience. Ponder the wordless montage when Calloway presents proof of Lime’s crimes to Holly as a case study in efficient filmmaking, further proof that Reed had smart narrative and visual instincts. Reed’s choice to let the final shot breathe unbroken also speaks to his cinematic savvy. We, like Holly, are waiting eagerly to see if Anna will embrace him or not; lingering on her face and body language speaks volumes about these two characters and the situation. Proving to quite literally be a hands-on filmmaker, Reed facelessly infused himself in the narrative by filming his hands reaching through the sewer grate and voicing the opening narration.

Mind-stirring theses abound in The Third Man, a morality tale about corruption and hypocrisy. Lime personifies the morally reprehensible black market forces that erupted in postwar Europe and unscrupulously profited from other people’s suffering; and yet Lime’s speech about “would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” resonates in that period, which followed the mass killing of millions of people via bombings from Axis and Allied forces. “Lime stands out as one of the screen’s most chilling embodiments of the banality of evil, and a perfect stand-in for the film’s vision of moral breakdown in post-World War II Europe,” Slant Magazine reviewer Matt Noller posited.

One reading of The Third Man is that it espouses anti-American sentiment on the other side of the world following the war: Holly is a symbol of the United States and how our country was perceived in postwar Europe. Consider how foolish, clumsy, and naïve Holly is; he’s a personage of ridicule who is, as Village Voice critic Steve Hoberman stated, “blamed for a murder, followed in the street, hijacked by a cab driver, and repeatedly rebuffed by Anna (who can never remember his name). Such are the burdens of world leadership.” Hoberman added that the script created a political allegory: pro-British, anti-Soviet, and critical of the U.S.A.

Roger Ebert shared somewhat in this interpretation: “The Third Man" reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It's a story about grownups and children: adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime's crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels.”

Adding weight to this subtextual argument is Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote: “The Third Man is important not just because of its technique but because of its theme: Just because blundering Americans rule the world does not mean they understand it, and American cultural hegemony has transformed the global economy into the plot of a gangster movie. While the corrupt and duplicitous postwar Vienna of “The Third Man” may at first look like an ancient realm of fedoras and overcoats, men in ties and women with ringlets, in moral terms it’s the same world we inhabit today.”

This is a picture dripping with pessimism and cynicism. There is no classic happy love story ending here, only the feeling of postwar disillusionment and weariness, a fractured existence (exemplified by a city divided into four sections), hapless victims and seedy opportunists, fools like Holly who have no place in this space, and confused identities (ponder all the wrong names and mistaken identities: Holly is called Harry, Calloway is called Callahan, Holly mispronounces Dr. Winkel’s name, and Harry is the enigmatic third man).

The Third Man certainly ruminates deeply on betrayal: Lime betrays the confidence and love that Holly had placed in his friend, and Holly betrays Harry by leading the police to him and ultimately shooting him dead. And you can’t avoid the classic love triangle trope: Holly loves Anna, Anna loves Harry, Harry at one time may have loved Anna but loves himself more. However, the irony is that, in this love triangle, despite Holly doing everything the classic romantic lead should do (fall in love with the woman and try to protect her), she rejects him and holds a torch for a villainous racketeer.

Here's an interesting exercise in comparative filmmaking: Contrast The Third Man with Casablanca, released seven years earlier. Note how both feature a love triangle between a profiteer (Rick/Harry), a beautiful woman with an Eastern European heritage and accent (Ilsa/Anna), and a man who believes he’s doing the noble/right thing (Victor/Holly). Both films involve emotionally charged endings where the woman has to decide which man to choose. In each movie, the heroine passes on the expected choice, although Anna doesn’t have any love for Holly as Ilsa does for Rick. According to film reviewer Glenn Erickson: “The Third Man shows how the sentiment and ideals of Casablanca have soured in the postwar situation. In Casablanca, the risks taken by Rick, Elsa, and Renault are in harmony with the larger drama being played out between the Axis and the Allies. This ‘ideological security’ helps all three of them make painful personal decisions based on faith in a moral cause. By contrast, Martins, Anna, and the late Harry Lime drift in a moral limbo where such absolutes no longer exist. The Allies have ‘won’ but Vienna has become a political mire of injustice and conflicting ideologies…The characters of the wartime Casablanca may be confused, but they are ennobled by patriotism and able to make wise decisions. Patriotism is dead in the Viennese ruins of The Third Man. Even the benign characters are too disillusioned to function effectively. Holly waffles and plays at romance like a schoolboy. Anna drifts between bitterness and suicidal despair.”

Ultimately, The Third Man reminds us that the world is complicated—populated by an array of disparate forces, races, languages, and interests. Everybody in this world, as Renoir famously says in The Rules of the Game, has their reasons, including shadowy figures like Harry Lime, emotionally abstruse love interests such as Anna Schmidt, seasoned sleuths like Major Calloway, and the countless ethically compromised inhabitants of postwar Vienna. Trying to navigate this byzantine ethical landscape is difficult enough for the natives and the occupying forces, but it’s exponentially harder for naïve outsiders like Holly Martins who attempt to apply a myopic Americanized mindset to a convoluted state of affairs that requires greater depth perception and nuanced sensibilities, not simplistic or romanticized notions.

Holly is the unmistakable bull in this China shop, making a mess out of multiple situations and leaving an embarrassing trail of mostly regretful decisions in his wake. Calloway urges him to be sensible, but Holly says “I haven’t got a sensible name.” He’s been spurned, disillusioned, admonished, and humiliated by nearly everyone he encounters because he’s failed to grasp the new world order: that pessimism, greed, mistrust, and dehumanizing turpitude are the prevailing currencies of value, and no cowboy on a white hat straight out of a western dime novel is going to rescue or restore anyone.

The Third Man’s greatest gift, then, is that it takes an internationally spiced prestige drama, with a would-be romance recipe that uses ingredients associated with an emotionally epic payoff, and slathers it with classic noir’s bittersweet sauce of cynicism. The result is such a unique blending of different, surprising tastes: a one-of-a-kind layer cake with a delightfully decadent Lime-flavored center that you never expected.

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