World War II had barely begun before its shift to the silver screen. Its immediate fictionalisation in real time may have added to that conflict’s cultural mythos as much as reflecting it, all while failing to convey its true horror. Later films would prove more realistic, grittier and wrenching, but earlier stabs like The Lady Vanishes (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), and The Mortal Storm (1940) ““for a few examples among countless- are curiously weightless by comparison. The threat of impending or ongoing war is belied by romance and adventure. To be fair most these movies were not intended as moral indictments, more as mere adventures. Judge them as such, and take note of their representative moods.
The Third Man (1949) is a bookend to those movies. A decade later, and four years after the war, it is the end of a beautiful friendship, now gone to rubble, ruin, and racketeering. Not a war film in any literal sense, but one inseparable from the shadow of what precedes it, both in life and fiction. This is where a decade of film noir reaches its apotheosis, where the romance ends in a snub, where the urban decay the genre typifies becomes a literal sewer centrifugal to the plot line.
This is Vienna in 1949, a closed city, divided into sections between the allied powers. Dig how meta it is to make the protagonist of a noir film a pulp fiction writer: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), writer of “cheap novelettes” such as ‘The Oklahoma Kid’ and ‘The Lone Rider of Santa Fe’ turns up looking for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles.) Things take a left turn when British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) informs Holly that Harry is dead. But it doesn’t add up, and Holly gets in over his head, trying to untangle why or if Harry is actually dead, concurrent to wooing Lime’s femme but not quite fatale ex-lover Anna (Alida Valli).
If the plot is familiar ““and it is- it is also less the point than the method of its construction, which is all about displacement and reality impinging on the detective fantasy. However hard-boiled all those Raymond Chandler adaptations were, The Big Sleep (1946) et al, they remained nevertheless a microcosm of Hollywood endings and Production Code values. Here we get something else, consequences precipitated by ugly real life, where a post-war penicillin shortage begets a racket which dilutes the drug for profit, causing deformity and death.
This isn’t the scenario Holly is expecting when he turns up in Vienna, because Holly has come wholesale from a world of pulp sleuthing and beat-’em-up’s where sure, there are bad guys, but where the bad guys are secretly in on the plot and wouldn’t stoop so low as poisoning children. It’s Holly’s (you could read his name as an abbreviated ‘Hollywood’) American-ness, which once insulated him, that places him at odds in a European setting. That we as an audience share Holly’s reference-points means that we too must partake in his mounting discomfit.
Anton Karas’ cheerful zither score is omnipresent, trying to convince us that things are okay even as we are made suspicious by its adamance. It vies with Carol Reed’s odd camera angles, diagonal or unbalanced, the image full of shadowy light, shimmering puddles, and cracked pieces of the cityscape, convincing us of the opposite.
Then, godlike, looking down from atop a Ferris wheel, Orson Welles semi-improvises the speech that makes everything clear: the people below are just dots, and what would it matter if one of them stopped moving forever? Terror and bloodshed, he explains, bought about The Renaissance; what did five-hundred years of democracy and peace produce? The cuckoo clock.
It’s the most famous scene in the film, and it’s the most disarming. Like Holly, you would rather believe that it’s just bluster, but the ruinous debris of a war ravaged city below and the corrupt officials willing to enable Lime’s racketeering tell you otherwise: it doesn’t matter what happens to Harry Lime in the end, because his is the ideology dominant enough for all this to have happened in the first place.
Welles is only in a few scenes, despite his billing, but he steals all of them to such an extent that people over the years have mistakenly credited him as director. His presence is enormous, but to overstate his role is to do a disservice to Graham Greene’s nuanced script, Carol Reed’s offbeat-direction, or the subtle amorality with which Joseph Cotton plays Holly. Having said that, one can easily detect the influence of films Welles did direct, such as The Lady From Shanghai (1947), or The Stranger (1946), as much as Reed seems to be indirectly responding to earlier films he made himself, such as the aforementioned Night Train to Munich and The Way Ahead (1944).
Like all great films, The Third Man is the combinative result of equally firing elements, a joy to watch as much for its darkly beautiful images, its engrossing story, as it is for its layered sense of meaning and cultural subtext.