The Third Man

I don’t agree with the notion that there’s no such thing as a perfect film. In fact, I think there are many, many perfect films—films that really have no actual flaws or faults, and are composed almost entirely of quality parts. Perfect films are like perfect meals in that once you’ve found the perfect recipe it’s just a matter of following it. Rarer, however, is the chef that’s willing to get the absolute highest quality ingredients in which to make the meal. Far rarer yet is the chef that’s willing to creatively divert from the recipe—throwing in spices, changing ingredients, etc.—in order to create a dish that still tastes familiar, but which breathes new life into the meal, allowing you to taste it as if for the first time. The Third Man is one such film. Ostensibly, it’s crafted like any other post-war mystery noir; but why, then, is it so frequently cited as one of the absolute best films ever made? The answer lies in the creativity of its “chefs” who seemed to intuitively know when to follow the recipe, and when to daringly change it. Of course, it helps when you have some of the most brilliant “chefs” in the business involved.

It starts with writer Graham Greene who, on his trip to Vienna, began hearing about the black market trade in penicillin, and was introduced to Vienna’s elaborate underground sewer system. These elements clarified Greene’s vision, and soon after the screenplay was born. The Third Man is a perfect distillation of Greene’s writing, which combined a concern with ambiguous morality as it related to the modern world wrapped up in tightly crafted stories that had popular appeal. Greene’s writing is especially notable in his talent for facilitated economy; characters are immediately defined through their actions and words, the conflict is quickly laid out, the setting firmly established, and one scene logically leads to the next. The opening itself is an example which begins with a voiceover contrasting and describing the “Old” and “New” Vienna. This instantly informs us of all we need to know about the setting and its unique historical context. But this quickly transitions to the introduction of our protagonist, Holly Martins, as he informs us he’s just arrived in Vienna and is looking for his friend, Harry. Just as quickly we’re informed of Harry’s death, and Greene navigates Holly through the key places—including the cemetery, and hotel— while deftly setting up the other characters and situations that will come into play later.

The production team itself seems to represent the old world/new world, American/European conflict present in the film. Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick were two producers who could not be more unalike. Selznick fashioned himself an auteur filmmaker himself, and was notorious for lording over the production of Gone With the Wind to the point that most unanimously call it “Selznick’s Gone With the Wind”. But with The Third Man Selznick was too far away to keep such a death grip on the proceedings, and the result is a film that bears his mark only in the lavish, commercialized production. Korda, however, was a producer who preferred to sit back and let the filmmakers work their magic. He brought a sense of old-world elegance to productions and the more classical, high-art elements in The Third Man could largely be contributed to him.

The cast is equally a study in contrast. Joseph Cotten is an uneasy fit into the hero detective mode that most films of this type call for. But he’s perfect here precisely because Holly Martins isn’t a hero, but a bumbling, bemused foreigner who is out of his depths in a world he doesn’t understand, drowning in languages he can’t understand, and a mystery he can’t comprehend and is powerless to solve. Holly is a classic “lovable” loser, though I put “lovable” in quotes because he quite often tests our sympathies for him. Alida Valli often gets unfairly overlooked, but The Third Man is as much Anna’s story as Martins’. She’s the real tragic figure of the film, a woman in love with a man she believes is dead, and who finds herself alone and afraid in a tumultuous world. Valli’s performance is one of subtle restraint, allowing Cotton and Welles to bask in the film’s pyrotechnics while she carries the emotional weight and poignancy of the film on her facial expressions. It’s her long walk that closes the film, and somehow it silently, visually, says everything we need to know about her, about Holly, and about their “relationship”.

On the other hand we have Orson Welles, as hammy and theatrical as any actor to ever grace the cinematic screen. But he’s an equally perfect fit for Harry Lime, which Orson Welles described as the perfect star role, or a role in which everyone talks about you endlessly during the film, and then you finally show up and everyone in the audience remembers you whether you did anything memorable or not. But he does do plenty of memorable things here, even in that famous reveal of him in the darkened alcove with the cat, Welles’ sly, smirking face seems to say everything we need to know about Lime. Welles turns in an unusually nuanced performance as a character who straddles the line between detestable villain and charming anti-hero. Given the facts, we should hate Harry, but because we see him through the eyes of Holly’s friendship and Anna’s love for him, it’s impossible to do so. At the same time we reject his nihilistic attitude of killing those “dots” (people seen from up high), we can’t help but realize the pithiness of his infamous Cuckoo Clock speech. One of the finest touches in the film is the fact that Greene offers him a measure of redemption in the end, a silent self-acknowledgement that he truly doesn’t deserve to live.

Behind the camera we have director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker (who won a well-deserved Oscar for his black and white work). Reed’s importance to the film has often been undervalued, and many have even proposed that it was more Welles’ film than Reed’s, but the facts don’t support this notion. For those familiar with Reed’s previous work, The Third Man actually fits quite well into his oeuvre, and Soderbergh (in his Criterion commentary) notes the similarities between this film and Reed’s Odd Man Out. Reed’s direction is as economical as Greene’s writing, but he also shows a taste for visual flourishes that never distract from the film but merely give it that certain spice. Especially notable are the pervasive Dutch angles, which is perhaps an obvious suggestion of a world gone awry. I think he escapes the charges of it being a gimmick precisely because he’s judicious in his use of them, and every time they show up they seem to suggest that’s something’s not quite right with what we’re being shown and told.

On a pure visual level, Reed and Krasker must have felt like kids at Disneyland when they arrived and saw the ruins of Vienna. There’s something eminently photogenic about war-torn cities: perhaps because it provides such a contrast to the ordered design of our everyday lives. Ruins suggest chaos and the breakdown of standards, society, and culture, and all of these themes fit perfectly in the context of The Third Man. But Reed and Krasker also have an eye for studio interiors, or even streets and buildings that are still in fine condition. Perhaps their most remarkable find is the expressive reflexivity of the streets when wet, as well as the enormous shadows that lights could throw onto buildings. Of course, the finale, the justly famous sewer chase, immerses us into a hellish underworld, like Dante’s descent into hell. But this is a labyrinthine hell filled with sewage water rather than lakes of fire. It’s here that Reed takes advantage of spatial disorientation, visually and aurally confusing us as to precisely what’s happening and where everyone is. It’s one those many “spices” in the film that sets it apart from others of its kind.

No matter how piecemeal one wants to dissect and analyze The Third Man, the truth remains; something more than superficial that makes it the ultimate masterpiece that it is. That something may have to do with the film’s status as a work of art caught in a limbo between cinematic, artistic, cultural, and social traditions: Vienna itself is a city divided into “sections”, each ruled by members of different nations, the film opens by contrasting the culture of old Vienna and its social degradation since the war, Holly is a schlock fiction writer who’s called upon by the culture center to discuss the likes of James Joyce when he’s been influenced by Zane Grey, the film itself is an attempt at a popular film at the same time it’s a work concerned with society, morality, and its own status as a work of high or low art. In an odd way, though, The Third Man captures one of the ironies of cinema in that there is no line between b-fiction and high art like there is in literature. Genres like noirs and westerns, which are dismissed in high-minded literary circles, are often the most distinguished masterpieces in film.

Of course, it’s impossible to review The Third Man and not talk about Anton Karas’ zither score. What can be said that hasn’t been said? Every positive adjective seems applicable, but equally incapable of capturing the utterly unique experience of hearing this foreign instrument accompanying the already vivid images. Like so many of the film’s polar elements, the score seems disjunctive with the images. The two aren’t harmonious, and yet they seem to enrich each other, like the old “opposites attract” saying. One would think that a lone zither would be woefully inadequate for capturing the drama or emotion in a film like this, but Karas has an ability to coax anything he needs out of the instrument: sometimes breezy and charming, sometimes fun and melodious, sometimes plaintive and longing, sometimes staccato and urgent. It’s one of those things in art that’s almost impossible to explain why it works in words, but one that you immediately recognize as working when you experience it. Like most risky ideas that turn out magnificently, everyone involved wanted to take credit after the soundtrack became an unprecedented success. But Karas himself remained eternally humble and unphased by success, using the money he made from the film to buy a wine business in Vienna.

All of The Third Man’s wondrous little devices and details—the wet streets, the tilted camera, the zither score, the sewer chase, the long walk, the Lime reveal, the ruins of Vienna, the Cuckoo Clock speech—could merely have been a gimmick, but in the hands of everyone involved they ARE the spices that breathe magnificent life into such a well-worn genre. To this day, I’ve seen The Third Man six times, two of those viewings with commentaries, and it’s simply a film that doesn’t age or become banal and tired or gimmicky. When all is said and done, it may very well go down as the greatest noir ever created. For my money, the only other one that even holds a candle to it is Touch of Evil, yet I can’t help think that Welles’ masterpiece lacks the indefatigable charm of The Third Man (though it certainly has its own wonderful qualities). Ultimately, The Third Man isn’t just a perfect film, it’s better than a perfect film because it does all of the things that perfect films are usually scared to do.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

3 Responses to The Third Man

  1. Kutta says:

    It’s Graham Greene, not Green (sorry for being typo nazi).

    Great review.

  2. Problem fixed. (I originally posted this for Jimbo)

  3. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Thanks for both the correction and compliments, Kutta. :)

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