An Appreciation – The Third Man

No film is perfect, but there a few that come close. The Third Man (1949), written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, is one such film. It is one of those movies in which every single element works in perfect harmony with one another. The writing, the acting, the music, and the locations are so distinct and recognizable that they have become lodged in our consciousness almost effortlessly. It has been referenced countless times by countless filmmakers—people have been moved and affected by it perhaps without even knowing it. The story of a naïve American writer, traveling to Europe to meet his friend shortly after WWII and suddenly being thrown head first into a conspiracy of lies and deceit, has become synonymous with what it means to be a “great” movie. It is a film whose intrigue and captivation has not dissipated, even more than a half century later.

This film may be the best example of how a location can play a major role in the style and tone of the overall story. The film takes places in Vienna, shortly after the end of WWII. The city has been divided into four different sections, each controlled by the various Allied forces. Through an opening narration (by Reed himself), we learn the basic layout of the city, and how the separate sections lent to a rise of black market activity. Reed, in a move that was considered daring at the time, insisted that the film be shot outside of the studio and in the actual streets of Vienna, and he was absolutely correct. Remnants of the war can be seen throughout nearly every moment of the film: dropped bombs leaving gaping craters in the pavement, destroyed buildings, stone rubble as far as the eye can see. Stones steps are broken and disjointed; the people that move throughout have to physically maneuver within the piles of wreckage that the real war left behind. As a result, there is a sense of immediacy within each frame, the unnamed lives that were shattered and the horrors of the violence echoing beyond the film itself.

If Casablanca (1942) was able to capture all of the optimism and hope for victory in regard to WWII, then this film expressed all the pessimism and weariness that the war left behind. Cynicism rose, and moral ambiguity began to creep its way into the hearts of its characters. That is why the black market plays such an important role in the film—for those that lived through the chaos of the war and are left to live in ruins and fend for themselves, the lines between good and evil will eventually blur. This is a harsh reality to face for the main character of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an alcoholic writer of pulp westerns who travels to the city at the request of his good friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). However, almost as soon as Holly arrives in Vienna, he comes to learn that Lime was struck and killed by an automobile while crossing the street. We then find Holly at Harry’s funeral—what he thought to be a reunion between friends quickly becomes a sad and shocking experience that catches him completely off guard.

But very soon, Holly realizes that things are not all that they appear to be. Clues begin to rise; the multiple stories of the accident do not seem to gel together when examined closely, and one too many coincidences have taken place. How exactly is it that two of Harry’s friends dragged his body to the other side of the street, while his very own personal doctor just happened to be walking by to examine him? How is it that the person who was driving the vehicle that hit Harry turned out to be his own driver? What about the information that the apartment house porter gives to Holly that there was a mysterious “third man” who helped drag Harry’s body to the sidewalk? And what about Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who seems to be investigating Harry not because of his death, but because of something he did while he was still alive? One of the early scenes has Holly at a pub with Calloway and his associate, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), and when Holly gets insulted by Calloway for questioning Harry’s integrity, Paine socks him right on his chin, even while being a fan of his writing. With all of these odd links and contrasting stories, Holly begins to wonder whether Harry’s death was actually an accident or if it was the result of a more sinister plot.

What first strikes me about the film are its visuals. Reed, who worked with his Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Krasker, created a look to the film that was tilted and off-kilter, but feeling correct and appropriate to its tone. This is one of the best examples of great noir filmmaking, and nearly every shot of it was made with pitch-perfect craftsmanship. Notice how almost every camera set-up is slightly tilted off balance; very rarely is there a shot where the camera is parallel to the ground. This creates a world that is disjointed and dangerous—we cannot take everything we see at face value because the style of the camera tells us that there may be something our main character is not being directly told. The camerawork is accompanied by the tremendous use of lighting. Light and shadows work together in a way that is not representative of what we see in the real world, but works when we take into account the mood that Reed and Krasker were going for. Shadows cut through the scenes dramatically, and light comes from directions that shouldn’t be there logically. Light sources at times come from directly behind the actor that’s on screen. Alleyways that (in the real world) would be masked in complete darkness are bright and sharp with its lighting.  This creates an effect that is obviously staged, but at the same time is exciting and engaging.

The visuals are accompanied by an amazing musical score of Anton Karas. The music of the film came by sheer accident. Reed happened upon Karas playing his zither inside of a public restaurant, and the way he played was so distinguishable and unique that Reed felt compelled to include him in the film. This is an amazing story, even more amazing to learn (from the Criterion DVD) that Karas did not know how to read or write music, but regardless of that was able to create one of the most famous cinematic musical pieces ever. There is a kind of playful but slightly sarcastic way in which the music works here. It is rhythmic, bouncy, and yet is not necessarily joyous or happy. It feels affected, as if trying to hide the darker undertones that are trying to make their way to the surface. The music is part of what makes this film memorable. If the film were to be scored with a traditional orchestra, the entire mood would be altered, making an entirely different movie that would probably go on to not be as celebrated as it currently is.


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Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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