The Third Man
Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
My blog friend Jay from Life vs. Film has a category of film he calls “Guaranteed Happiness.” It’s a great tag, and one I think I just might have to adopt, especially for films like this one.
Because seriously, ladies and gentlemen, cogency escapes me when dealing with something so utterly sublime, so painfully perfect, so completely flail-worthy as the fantazmoniousness (yes, that’s a made up word from my college days) of The Third Man.
The somewhat labyrinthine story focuses on Holly Martins (Cotten, a name that autocorrect refuses to recognize), an American pulp novel writer who heads over to 1949 rubble-strewn Vienna in order to get a job from his old friend Harry Lime (Welles). Trouble is, though, as soon as he shows up, he’s told that his friend Lime has died under rather shady circumstances. Not only has he died, but the British Major Calloway (Howard) informs Holly that Lime was a crook who was running penicillin on the black market. Not at all certain who to believe, things get more complicated when Holly falls in love with Lime’s mourning girlfriend, the actress Anna Schmidt (Valli) who thoroughly believes Harry was a good man.
Seriously, I don’t know where to begin. Photography! Characters! Music! Thematic elements! TOO MUCH! Suffice it to say, this movie inspires such overwhelming feelings of love and adoration that it has rendered me imbecilic.
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I guess I’ll start with the first time I ever saw part of The Third Man. It was right around the time I was considering making an effort to see the films from the 1001 Movies book; I had purchased the book, but had not yet committed myself to it. On a lazy Sunday, I was flipping through channels and the final sewer chase sequence was on Turner Classic. It made me stop. It made me gasp. I watched, enraptured, such black and white photography the likes of which I had never seen before. To say I was stunned would be putting it lightly. The photography of this film went a long way towards convincing me that I should embark on the 1001 Movies journey.
Because fuck, this is a pretty movie. I dare you to find two back-to-back shots that aren’t canted at an angle and I find that exciting, thrilling even. Reed goes to town with the sense of disarray throughout the entire film, constantly skewing shot after shot. When you combine this with the beautiful shadow and light play, this is some brazenly constructed cinematography, and I cannot get enough of it. I hold my breath during certain shots in The Third Man because they’re just too gorgeous. Not only are the shots skewed, but they are filled with a heady mixture of gothic romantic architecture and rubble. Some of the characters live in formerly luxurious apartments that are no longer furnished because of the war. There are cracks in the plaster and repair equipment everywhere. There’s something about the combination of destruction and luxury that seems so illogical, yet it works.
It’s also the little touches that put The Third Man over the edge for me. Things like the fact that the head of the Culture Committee that invites Holly Martins to speak is constantly subtly trying to shunt his mistress to the side. The young boy with the ridiculously cherubic face accusing Martins of being a murderer. The blind balloon salesman and his important walk. The fact that a significant conversation takes place at an old amusement park. The slimy guy with his stupid little dog that nevertheless rarely leaves his side. The police sergeant who loves Martins’ novels because they’re easy to put down. The fact that no one seems to be able to get a name right to save their lives. “Vin-kel,” Professor Winkel repeatedly tells Holly. Callahan instead of Calloway. Anna even calls Holly Martins “Harry” in one scene. The richness of the details in The Third Man goes a very long way for me.
The confusion in names is related to the setting of the film, a war-torn Vienna that is occupied by four countries at once. Vienna is a necessary character in the film; this movie would not be the same were it transplanted to any other place or time. No, this is 1949 Vienna, and it MUST be 1949 Vienna, set in a world where there is confusion on an international level and no one quite knows what’s going on. The French, American, British, and Russian sections all have their own quarters of the city and no one speaks each others’ languages; Harry Lime and associates took advantage of this fact to run their black market operations. This movie NEEDS the rubble and confusion next to the centuries-old cathedrals.
The score. The goddamned music. Best movie music ever, or best movie music ever? No movie score is like the score to The Third Man because the music makes no sense when combined with the plot, BUT THAT IS ITS GENIUS. The score here does NOT serve to emotionally underpin key scenes or lines, but instead simply contributes to the sense of Vienna. A nonstop run of carnival-esque zither music, of all things, plays throughout The Third Man, and it’s perfect. I love how it goes against any and all expectations of what a film score is or should be. And yet, because it’s so utterly Viennese (Anton Karas was, for all intents and purposes, a street performer before he recorded the music for The Third Man), the music goes such a long way in immersing me in the foreign and uneasy world of Vienna. For three years, the main theme was my ringtone on my phone, that’s how much I love this music.
But beyond the superficiality of the film, there is a fascinating and immensely complex morality play going on in The Third Man. Holly Martins is the de facto “hero,” but he is so, so far from this role. As an American dime novelist who writes cheap westerns, undoubtedly full of Good Guys in White Hats and Bad Guys in Black Hats, Martins doesn’t understand shades of grey, and he just walked into the greyest city in Europe. He doesn’t understand why Anna, who seems nice enough, could love the criminal Harry Lime after he learns of Lime’s black market dealing. He doesn’t understand how his friend could have entered into the black market at all. What’s so clever about The Third Man, though, is that the movie makes it clear to the audience how both of those things could have come to pass. A speech about how we do not judge countries who commit atrocities in war, killing millions, and yet spread about some diluted penicillin and you’re the devil himself. Is that a fair judgment? No, it isn’t, but Martins has trouble with this. He’s far too tunnel-visioned, and his dime novel sense of morality and justice does nothing in The Third Man to bring him joy; instead, it divorces him from everything he thought he cared for. When you add in the fact that he is constantly appearing to be the fool – bungling a speech, mucking up friendships, getting bit by a pet bird, even falling down and generally being clumsy, we have a hero who is really anything but. Not a hero, no, but a fool, a dunce, who thinks he knows everything and in reality knows nothing.
Everyone else, however, is far more world-weary and cynical, having adapted to living in the moral ambiguity of post-war Europe. Major Calloway is an interesting study; he’s the character closest to the side of right, but I would hesitate in actually calling him virtuous. He’s got a tough job to do, and he’s more than willing to subvert justice to get his way. Watch how he plays Anna, then plays Holly, to get his man. He’s not concerned with the fact that Anna is in Vienna on false papers and the daughter of a war criminal; he’s more than willing to ignore this to get his way. Unlike Martins, he’s incredibly aware of the moral grey area and isn’t afraid to dip his toe in. He’s a great foil to the baddies in The Third Man.
And then there’s Anna. She might be one of my favorite female film characters of all time. Completely full of flinty determination, she is a pillar of strength and sadness. It’s easy to understand why Holly becomes infatuated with her, but I love her all the more for sticking by her man and not making eyes back at Holly simply because he’s there. She could never love Holly, he’s far too simple, and the deliciously powerful final shot of the film confirms this (I LOVE THAT SHOT JFC!). She is loyal to Harry despite Harry’s many flaws because, well, he’s her man. And she’s no angel. She’s in a tough situation, but she will get herself through. Anna’s a survivor. I love her for that.
Giddy. This movie makes me giddy. It’s brilliant. It’s fantastic. It has one of the BEST reveals in all of cinema (one that I have, on several occasions, made my rather bored husband watch over and over and over). It’s got a gutsy and perfect final shot. The music is divine. The cinematography is heavenly. The characters are intriguing. This movie, man. This movie. This is what movies are all about.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. Because duh.