Disclaimer: The Third Man turns 65 this year, so I’m taking the liberty of using spoilers in order to write about the movie's techniques and themes. Be warned.
Holly Martins has the worst luck. The broke writer travels to Vienna shortly after the end of World War II because his best friend, Harry Lime, offers him a job. Within the opening minutes of director Carol Reed’s classic noir thriller The Third Man, Martins walks under a ladder – a harbinger of bad luck – and soon learns that a car struck and killed Lime a few days earlier. Martins is now adrift in a foreign land with no money and no prospects, but things are about to get much worse. Major Calloway, a British officer who is part of the post-war occupying force in Vienna, tells Martins that his childhood friend was a criminal, a profiteer within the city’s thriving black market. Martins decides to clear his friend’s good name and, as a result, he’s pulled into intrigue that challenges his belief in the decency of humanity. Along the way he meets Anna, Lime’s lover, who is ferociously loyal and is devastated by his death.
Because we’re travelling through noir country in The Third Man, the worldview is bleak, practically nihilistic. Made in 1949, the film explores the existential crisis experienced after the most deadly war in history ended. Life is cheap, take all you can while you can, and don’t look out for anybody but yourself.
Director Reed explores these themes using every tool at his disposal, such as the cinematography by Robert Krasker, who employs stark, expressionistic black-and-white photography to portray the war torn metropolis as an empty husk of its former glory. Besides the film stock, Reed and Krasker use the camera itself to represent the off kilter world in which we find ourselves. Many of the shots use the canted or Dutch angle approach, making you feel off balance, just as Martins does throughout much of the movie. Most of these shots come as Martins is investigating the death of Lime. When a witness to the accident or an acquaintance of Lime’s obfuscates the facts, things literally become off balance.
The script by Graham Greene is equally powerful, presenting post-war Vienna itself as a nihilistic character. The city symbolizes the profession Harry Lime pursued, and Holly Martins learns some harsh truths about his old friend. When the phrase “black market” is used by Major Calloway, Martins assumes it’s as harmless as coffee and cigarettes. The reality is much worse. Lime, in a classic case of criminal overreach, used an inside man to steal penicillin, then diluted it so he could sell more doses to up his profit margins.
Martins comes to believe his friend wasn’t killed by an accident, but that it might have been murder. During his investigation he learns it was neither. Lime faked his own death in order to evade capture by the police. Writer Greene pulls off a neat trick with the character. The first half of the movie is full of people talking about the great Harry Lime, and by the time we actually meet him, the other characters bestow a mythic quality to the man. Reed confirms Lime’s legendary status by orchestrating a grandiose entrance. It’s one of the most memorable in cinema history. The director does it with nothing more than a cat, a pair of shoes, and a sudden beam of light that cuts through the inky darkness of the Vienna night. It also helps that at the end of that beam of light is the mischievous yet cherubic face of the one and only Orson Welles.
Welles plays Harry Lime with an undeniable charisma. He is one of a handful of actors who can admit to making children sick with doctored penicillin but still command your sympathies. Because of that, the filmmakers could really explore the ethical malaise that covered the post-war world like a blanket. Lime delivers a speech to Martins while at the top of a famous Viennese landmark – the Riesenrad Ferris Wheel. He asks his old friend to look at the ground and imagine how upset he would be if a few of the little dots on the ground stopped moving forever. The Second World War brought unimaginable death and destruction, so Harry Lime figures why not make a little profit from it? His speech to Martins at the bottom of the Ferris wheel gives voice to a post-traumatic sensibility that admires violence. In Italy, the violent reign of the Borgias produced the Renaissance, Lime tells Martins. What did 500 years of tranquility in Switzerland yield? The cuckoo clock.
In addition to Welles’ charismatic performance, the rest of the cast melds seamlessly to create a funhouse mirror reflection of the world. Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins is a man whose eyes are opened to the horrors of war that are taking place long after the peace was won. Cotton telegraphs world weariness with his face. Italian actress Alida Valli, as Lime’s lover Anna, displays unwavering devotion to the man even after discovering he would sell her out in a minute to save his own skin. The scene when Martins tells Anna that Lime used her own trouble with forged immigration documents to help him evade detection is heartbreaking. The absolute resoluteness Valli exhibits is crushing.
The movie was produced in a time when moral corruption was expected to be punished. As a result, Lime pays the ultimate price for his crimes, but the filmmakers mete out the harshest penalty to the survivors. Lime says as much back on the Ferris wheel. He tells Martins the dead get off the easiest. Their troubles are over. It’s the living who go on suffering. Martins and Anna pay the worst price, and we see it exacted upon them in the final shot. They are the last victims of Lime’s cynical victimization of a world that already lost so much.
Why it got 5 stars:
- The Third Man is a great example of every aspect of the filmmaking process coming together in just the right way. The acting, direction, cinematography, writing, etc. are all superb.
- The themes Reed and Greene explore remain relevant 65 years later.
- The mystery element at the core of the movie is engrossing, no matter how many times you've seen it.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The score is one of the most unique ever produced for a film. It uses only one instrument, the zither. Reed hired musician Anton Karas after hearing him perform during a dinner in Vienna. The result is a quirky soundtrack that lends a singular personality to the movie. The ad campaign for the film featured Karas, telling audiences, "He'll have you in a dither with his zither!"
- Despite the heavy themes of The Third Man, it does have some very funny moments. Holly Martins' exchanges with Calloway, like when he tries unsuccessfully to punch Calloway out for besmirching Lime's reputation, are very amusing.