1 Hr., 48 Mins.
The Third Man May 8, 2018
n Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), we feel sweet relief when running about in the labyrinthine sewer system of Vienna. Throughout the movie, we are overwhelmed by tilted, closeup-dependent photography; performances rooted in deep-seated anxieties and crippling neuroses; music, played by the Viennese musician Anton Karas entirely on a zither, that sounds creepily vaudevillian. For the most part, the film is a funhouse-
mirrored reflection of the discomforts and lassitudes of postwar Europe, the disillusionment and cynicism noticeable and lightly satirized but still largely unspoken. When we sink into the inners of the sewage system during the movie's climax, then, this unstated unsettlement is suddenly out in the open, the characters relieving their movielong strains physically.
Although Orson Welles, who co-stars in the film, simply lent his acting talents to The Third Man, the movie, so underlined by discomfiture, feels very much in line with his filmography. His previous works, like 1946’s The Stranger and 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai, match The Third Man in their atmospheres of abstraction and postwar disaffection.
Different, however, is The Third Man’s sense of cohesion. (The Stranger and Lady were both played with by doubtful studios.) Though it is comparably a nightmarish quasi-comedy thriller in the ways these aforementioned pieces are, it is contrastly tight in its storytelling and confident in its mysteries, among the more artistically and creatively stimulating thrillers of the era. Reed emulates Welles’s stylistic approach but gives more weight to it by emphasizing the possibilities of satisfactorily elaborate substance.
Perhaps its success can be credited to the way its screenwriter, the novelist Graham Greene, puts escapism first and postwar commentaries and witticisms second. Or the way Reed submerges the central, Allied-occupied Austria in slick, artful tension that is complementary rather than distracting. Either way, The Third Man makes for exemplary popcorn entertainment: It is a rollercoaster that values its design just as much as its story, an opus that invests as much time in its characters as it does its stylization. To watch it is to be entrapped by its wispy, unreal haze.
It stars Joseph Cotten, the boy-faced giant fresh from 1948’s Portrait of Jennie, as Holly Martins, a down-on-his-luck pulp Western writer invited to Vienna by his old friend Harry Lime (Welles), who has offered him a job. God knows Martins needs it – he’s unsatisfied with his current literary prospects, and is in the throes of alcoholism. Upon arrival, though, optimism is dashed: Harry has been killed in a freak car accident. Holly stumbles upon his funeral, which is sparsely attended, and is immediately, if inexplicably, overcome with skepticism. This intuitive feeling is fortified when Calloway (Trevor Howard), a major under the British Army Police, claims that Harry was a criminal — something Holly wasn’t aware of — and that it would be best if Holly leave town. The offness, and the guardedness that circles around the situation, piques Holly’s interest. And this curiosity is able to be explored after he is subsequently
given the opportunity to stay in Vienna by British occupying forces.
As The Third Man develops, it becomes evident that there is more to Harry’s putative death than meets than eye, and that Holly will be incapable of really resting until he knows exactly what happened. As the feature unspools, then, it reveals itself to be something of a successor to The Maltese Falcon (1941) – one character drifts about an unusual black-and-white space and has memorable exchanges with a number of colorful characters who know more about an object (or in this case, person) of interest than our lead does.
In a way, Harry is a McGuffin. A term popularized by the director Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his fame, a McGuffin is described as “an object or device in a movie or book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot.” Largely, the Maltese falcon, along with other definitive McGuffins, like the atomic briefcase in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly or the meaning of “Rosebud” in Welles’s own Citizen Kane (1941), serve no purpose besides revealing things about the characters. Harry isn’t necessarily a McGuffin, as we do, spoiler, eventually meet him. But while watching The Third Man, I was overcome with the feeling that this movie would still make a major impression if we never knew exactly what happened to him, if the feature served as a fruitless portrayal of a search for answers.
In his increasingly obsessive search for leads, Holly reveals himself empty, thirsty for meaning in his life. Though he does have professional prospects in Vienna, it is the hunt for the truth that rids him of his existential doubt: He finally has an immediate purpose. When we later get to know Harry’s actress girlfriend, Anna (Valli), with whom Holly becomes enamored, we see a woman driven by limerence: She bases her self-worth on what others think of her. Calloway is an optimist who still believes in black-and-white good and bad in spite of all he’s seen.
Part of The Third Man’s beauty is that its exhaustiveness, whether that be exemplified by its writing, acting, direction, or design, enables it to be an effective feature no matter how its story might unfold. If Harry were a McGuffin, it’d still probably be a masterpiece. And if Harry didn’t exist at all – if we plainly watched these characters live with no driving action – we’d still be riveted. That the movie can uphold our interest even when it becomes more conventional and digestible during its final act comes to show Greene and Reed’s command over their respective medium. The climax, which almost didn’t come about as a result of the producer David O. Selznick’s worry that it would be too dark, summarizes the film’s way of both curtailing orthodoxies while still remaining as satisfying as other more commercial works of art might be. A+