There are some classics that are, without a doubt, films that will always be hard-hitting, poignant works of art. They remain progressive to this day, whether through plot, skill of the actors, cinematography, soundtrack, or a combination of all. Then there are some that seem to have have fallen into the cracks of “classic-dom”, touted as masterpieces and cinematic wonders, but fail to back up those lauded opinions of critics. These movies may have introduced some innovative film ideals at the time, but some will say have aged poorly. In my opinion, The Third Man falls into this latter category.
Do I regret watching this 1949 British Noir? No. I’m happy I watched it. There were aspects that I enjoyed quite a bit, in fact. The scenery was spectacular. The setting is a post-WWII Vienna, shot on site, and in itself provided beautifully distressed shots of a shattered society going through the early phases of gathering itself once more. While this is clearly not the focus of the plot, I did appreciate it as a backdrop and the way it influences the decisions of certain characters. The acting is more than adequate, and of course is considered top notch by critics. One of the bones that I have to pick is not so much with the acting (although I wasn’t particularly impressed by Cotten as Holly Martins), but instead their behaviors and motivations. I found the characters flippant, swayed too easily into situations that moved the plot. There were a several circumstances where someone was stalwart toward a certain issue, but then not a minute later they said “eh, screw it I’ll go along with that.” A character would be adamant in finding something out, then become distracted or lose interest, but then find renewed vigor just moments later. And since we as the viewer are inherently following these kittens chasing strings, the plot in turn appeared to suffer from an attention disorder.
Not only were there wild swings of apprehension followed by dull nothingness, but the tone of the movie couldn’t seem to find a steady line. The narration at the beginning, the cartoon-like side characters, the quick and inane back and forth dialogue, all made me feel like I was watching Andy and April from “Parks and Recreation” performing as their alter egos of Burt Macklin and Janet Snakehole. This issue may be one that stems from how people talked at the time, but ultimately it was distracting and killed my immersion. There were probably a dozen scenes that could have been cut to simplify the plot. So much time was wasted by showing something, ending the scene, then bringing that something back up. Why not cut these scenes of finicky decisions and instead flesh out the drama?
And finally, speaking of distracting. That soundtrack. What’s the quickest way to ruin a murder mystery that spans a creepy, mist-laden, post-WWII city? You guessed it. Throw in a light-hearted (to the point of sounding comically goofy) backing song list that sounds like a long introduction to a Monty Python skit. I had never heard of a zither, which is apparently the only instrument they felt necessary to bring to the studio, but it will be too soon if I never have to listen to one again. The soundtrack was completely out of place in terms of plot and atmosphere. Every time I felt myself moving to the edge of the seat, I would be assaulted by more high-pitched twangs, and finding the tension utterly broken.
Now, all of those negatives aside…there were a handful of scenes that were indeed impactful. These parts must be when the critics walked back in from a bathroom break. Because if the entire movie had the strength of these few scenes, the movie would be better known than Casablanca. In particular, pay attention to the ferris wheel conversation, the very end of the sewer chase, and the very last scene of the film. If I could cut everything else but those three spots, the movie would easily be a 8 or a 9. These parts explore meaningful themes of humanity, good and evil, the capacity for change in a person, and love.
Alas, the film is one filled with confused drivel, unfortunately peppered with only a few gripping points. As such, I give The Third Man a 5/10.
I will warn readers that there are spoilers ahead. I find it necessary to discuss points revealed later in the movie in order to effectively explore the scenes.
Identity is an interesting concept that is explored throughout the movie. The first thing I noticed was that nobody could get anybody else’s name right. Holly says Callaghan when he means Calloway, Winkel when in fact it’s “Vinkel”. Anna says Harry when she means Holly. Despite constantly interacting, there is this oppressive feeling of transience that pushes the characters away from one another. The only relationships that seem to matter are those with Harry Lime. Holly is upset that his old friend has died, but even more of the crimes of which Harry is accused. Anna is the most affected by his death, and seems to have lost the motivation in her life. Calloway becomes strangely obsessed with capturing Lime after becoming aware that his death was a farce. To each of these characters, Harry Lime represents a different thing. To Holly he is the distant past. His friend is an image of the times that were “real”. Holly clearly doesn’t have a love for where his life had lead him, indicated most clearly by the writer’s class he gives (or the lack thereof, as he has no idea what anybody is asking him). Harry is his old childhood friend, and the things they did, while apparently purposeless and “stupid”, represented a time in his life that he regrets letting go. Anna Schmidt, with the death of her lover, sees an avenue in her life abruptly dead end. The charisma and even the danger that Anna experienced with Harry is gone, and now everything is dull. I would argue she didn’t care much for the activities they did or the actual time spent together, but instead the freedom provided to her by him. He provided the documentation necessary for her to escape Czechoslovakia, he gave her a new life. And once he “died”, she immediately came under scrutiny and faced possible deportation by the Russian police. She doesn’t miss him, she misses a carefree life. And finally Calloway, a military man. During the war he had purpose. There were orders to follow, orders to give, objectives to complete. Calloway is the kid that makes a mess of his Lego sets and then doesn’t want to clean them up. Postwar Vienna is the bedroom with the foot deathtrap strewn all about the floor. Lime represents a new case, a new mission to complete. When all the action is over and the credits are rolling, Calloway never once shows satisfaction, because there is nothing for him now but the same destroyed Vienna.
It is this blown-out city that provides a fascinating backdrop to the noir. Where your typical foggy Chicago neighborhood would have been is replaced with rubble. Chase scenes don’t find their way through back alleys and over rooftops, but instead over a flattened city of brick with only a few remaining monuments, eerie and austere. The juxtaposition is elegant. Cultured, educated people waging games between a ruined city that is the product of brutal, unsophisticated combat. These are people that have an established life among those who are just picking up the pieces. Both parties are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they all lack the necessary pieces to be happy. Everyone who is in the city has a life of fragments. Within the city are individuals or factions that all do what they can to benefit themselves. Harry sells altered medication that does more harm than good. Holly takes the law into his own hands to almost no consequence. Even the process of deporting Anna, despite being an obvious alien, is belabored and met with apathy rather than a judicial gusto. There is no justice in Vienna, just a city full of people clinging to remnants of life before the war. The big difference between the two groups of people are that the lower end picks up the pieces while the upper end takes advantage of the situation.
In this city without laws, Holly finds himself almost at home, despite having no home (do we ever see him stay in his own hotel?). He is tired of his own pulp novels, especially after coming to such a city and seeing these things that affect people so strongly. His inspiration, Zane Grey, is derided by an entire audience and he realizes an entire culture, despite being destroyed, has no respect for the very way he makes his living. His whole life is a child’s fantasy that just never died. His friend Harry is even described as a child, the man for whom Holly is searching with such investigative zeal. He arrives, perhaps disillusioned by the efforts spent on his last novel (which is assumed to be the same as every one of his other novels) and he is thrown into a new thick plot that, while familiar, is mysterious. Vienna becomes his wild west, and he becomes John Wayne. This aligns with his affection for Anna, a girl he knows nothing about. She is the typical “walk into the sunset” character that he creates in his head. But to her he is just another American. He is Harry with all of the clever parts taken out. Instead of walking into the sunset, she walks by him at the funeral as if they had never met.
The most interesting aspect of the movie to me (and to most people, I assume) is the grey area of good and evil. Real life is never black and white. Well fine there may be an exception here or there (looking at you, Hitler), but for the large part of everyday life, everybody is motivated by different things, and thus there is no perfect right or wrong. With one action or event, there will be an infinite number of wildly differing perspectives on the topic. What starts out as a murder mystery turns into a teetering examination of the obscurities in life. Holly believes Harry is accidentally killed, then he thinks that his old friend has been falsely accused and murdered for it, then he discovers Harry is indeed involved in the racketeering scheme, then is shocked to find him alive. The plot demonstrates a man’s evolving mindset, starting at “I understand that me and my old friend are good” to the unfortunate “are either of us really any good?” If Lime had truly been evil, he would have faked his death and moved on, abandoning Holly and Anna completely. But he can’t help but hang around, whether from jealousy that his old chum is hanging around his girlfriend, or a smug satisfaction that everybody has gotten so fired up over his murder. Ultimately he is human, and he is vain, and he is in the same grey area as everybody else. In some sense, I felt that Harry was still under the impression that, despite making ludicrous amounts of money from his scheme, he was doing a good deed. That some medicine was better than nothing. He had romanticized his own actions as even heroic, perhaps. Lime discusses his point of view of the entire scheme in the ferris wheel, and even hints a threat. But ultimately they are friends, and neither wants to hurt the other. It is here where the best quote of the movie arrives:
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty 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 five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”
Orson Welles conveys the generative anarchist point of view here, expressed in other fiction much later. Heath Ledger’s Joker conveys the idea by committing wanton destruction with the result of showing everybody how meaningless their constructs are. In The Fifth Element, Gary Oldman’s Zorg pipes that that something always comes from destruction (even if his point is simply to justify his greed). The idea is an established concept outside of fiction as well. The urban planning of London, Chicago, Cape May, and so forth all found new life after their respective great fires. In the vein of The Third Man itself, WWII created quite a boom within the confines of the USA on its own.
But with all of this in mind, we’re left to consider Harry’s enigmatic character and his motivations. Anna and Holly describe him as a great man, and its obvious they think as much from the way they’re taken by his personality. Calloway says he’s a thief and a killer. Even after plainly admits to his crimes, he does so in such a way that we don’t immediately vilify him. He’s less of an evil mastermind and more just a cog in a secret machine. It’s the sewer chase that reveals two things about him. Firstly, he is a killer, not in cold blood but out of perceived necessity. He is a rat caught in a cage, and when the fist comes down to squish him he bites it. We can’t help but feel that the shooting of Sgt. Paine was justified, in the same way that we justify the rat attacking its master. It is not the moral decision, but it is the one that keeps him alive. He is a product of his society, just as Holly is a product of the pulp consumerist society of the USA. The second point is that he is sorry. I felt a pang of regret for the racketeer when he gets to the top of the steps and sticks his fingers through the grate, feeling the winds of a city that has already moved on in his absence. He looks at Holly with the gun and nods. He accepts that his life is not what it could or should have been. And then he wants his old pal to be the one to draw it to a close. To end the performance.
Despite my low rating, there are obviously some great themes at work within the story. It is absolutely worth a watch. But if you tell me the soundtrack was fitting, I will personally find you and smash a zither over your head.
You can find the DVD/Blueray/Multiformat on Amazon at the link below.