The Third Man

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April 9, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten) is an American writer of western pulp-novels. He is invited to Vienna by his old school-friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who claims to have work for him. Upon arriving he learns that he is just in time for his friend’s funeral, that Harry has been snuffed-out in what the British police are calling a traffic accident. Holly douses his sorrow over drinks with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a senior British officer, who claims that Harry “was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city.” Holly is incredulous about the possibility, though he later admits to himself that he wasn’t surprised at all. Conflicting accounts of the “accident” lead Holly to ask questions; for the answers he seeks the aid of both Harry’s friends and his former lover (Alida Valli). His suspicion graduates to obsession with the knowledge of a mysterious third man present at the scene, a series of events that set the stage for our whimsical noir as Holly vows to clear Harry’s name by playing detective. He quickly finds that his services are not wanted and earnestly goading him to leave Vienna are the authorities… and especially Harry’s friends.

The Third Man succeeds technically on many levels. Graham Greene’s screenplay, the second written for Reed after The Fallen Idol, is witty and often funny. Orson Welles is brilliant as a cocksure young man playing everyone and Cotten portrays the naïve stranger-in-a-strange-land to perfection. The cinematography of Robert Krasker, for which he won an Academy Award, paints this picture with a bold and imperious sophistication. Under the direction of Carol Reed, the fallout of postwar Vienna is stratified into a sumptuous fabric of oblique lines and shadows. However, it is the zither score by Anton Karas, a native of Vienna, perhaps more than any other element that makes this picture resonate long after viewing. With few variations in theme it manages to complement a variety of moods and settings. At times it resembles a sideshow track working ironically in contrast to the desolate environs of Vienna—punctuating, for example, the absurdity of an excited mob led by a child—and in other scenes it seems to swoon sorrowfully, mirroring the haunting atmosphere established with lighting and photography.

The first image we see on screen is that of the zither, a stringed soundbox instrument popular in alpine Europe, playing as the opening credits roll. The zither is shot so that its strings create a series of horizontal lines across the frame. This introduction orients the viewer for the disorienting experiment in perspective to follow and it is among the few moments in the film in which lines are close to planar. Nearly every shot to follow is composed of oblique lines cross-cutting the frame to establish and emphasize a vertical axis. This is achieved by either tilting the camera, increasingly as the film progresses, to create Dutch angles1 or utilizing the stilted, provocative architecture of Vienna itself to capture that perspective in composition. Indeed, a number of locations were specifically chosen for their dramatic emphasis on line such as the suspension bridge and the ferris wheel used in the dramatic climax.

This technique has the effect of jolting the viewers sense of reality and suggests an off-kilter world. Its significance can surely be read a number of ways but to me this style emphasizes two related ideas. First, the strange, idiosyncratic reality of a postwar society, one that is segmented by the several victor nations each with their own laws; an inhospitable chaos that has the paradoxical effect of engendering lawlessness itself. Diagonal lines transverse the city in the same way invisible ones mark borders between the occupying nations. Second, notice that staircases, as objects demonstrating vertical space, are ubiquitous in this film, creating a sense that our characters are always in descent, cascading through the narrative. This reading obliges the paradigm implied by Greene and Reed, perhaps best elucidated by Welles in the famous ferris wheel scene:

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock …”2

Harry is a product of this ephemeral Europe, imprinting his own order and profiting as it were from the chaos. His character stands in sharp contrast to that of Holly Martens, a man accustomed to the puerile, black-and-white morals of his own novels and therefore struggling to make sense of a more complicated world. This is where the interplay of light and shadow, besides rendering striking visual contrast, works to aggrandize the narrative. Though we generally refer to this kind of photography as “black-and-white” the world presented to us by Greene and Reed is far more nuanced. The characters, like the film noir plot, fall somewhere in between. The legal arrangements and moral imperatives are shades of gray. Harry Lime seems to occupy a considerably higher space in this universe with an intellectually macroscopic view of his milieu. This apprehension allows him to choose, without reservation, the path intimated by his pitch-black wardrobe.

An interesting subplot that deserves brief consideration is the unrequited love between Cotten and Valli. Throughout the film it is clear that Holly has designs on Anna but they cannot be realized while the case of Harry Lime remains unsolved. Perhaps it is simply a case of respect for ones comrade (as well as for the grief Anna must be suffering at his loss), but there is a sense that the strength of Harry’s presence in Holly’s reality, despite his death, inhibits his advance. It is only when Holly discovers that Harry is alive (and naturally suspecting that he and Anna will be reunited eventually) that he clumsily and drunkenly makes a move on her—a very affecting scene for all the while Holly is confessing himself (even bringing her flowers) Anna can only talk about Harry.

It may be charged that Dutch angles are overly relied upon as it seems to be a technique much abused by lesser filmmakers. However, I find The Third Man in its curiously original use of such shots, to be superlatively well-crafted. Besides, what cineaste doesn’t delight in technique peculiar to film as a medium? Especially when the form so intensely informs the narrative or, in the words of David Cook: “when the medium becomes the message”. This may seem trite but, amidst the common shallowness of the golden age of cinema, in 1949 the method still possessed the allure of being exceptional. It may come as a surprise but The Third Man is indeed a studio picture, in fact a joint venture of British Lion Films (UK) and Selznick International Pictures (US).

Carol Reed could have given us a noir thriller divested of nuance and still produced a successful film. Instead he created the façade of an entertaining film with a familiar plot, satisfying the casual movie-goer and the studio, while beneath the surface we find a sophisticated social and political structure; one we can’t really call a “commentary” because this film doesn’t explicitly comment upon any of it. It’s just sitting there like breadcrumbs on a path to avail the astute viewer in a more holistic experience. With The Third Man Reed, Greene and Krasker have given us something much richer than Holly’s pulp novels, and eminently enduring.

1 Originally developed by the German Expressionism movement (1920s), and possibly first used by Dziga Vertov in “Man With A Movie Camera,” a Dutch, or oblique, angle is achieved by tilting the camera off to the side so that the shot is composed with the horizon at an angle relative to the bottom of the frame.

2 This most famous monologue from the film was written by Welles himself.

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