The Third Man: excellent character study of people coping with a changed world where old certainties are subverted

Carol Reed, “The Third Man” (1949)

Here’s an excellent movie character study about the testing of loyalties and trust in a world that’s just come out of a long war where such notions as brotherhood, friendship, doing what you believe is right and the ethical concerns that might arise from personal action are subverted and corrupted, and people end up living and surviving for selfish reasons alone. An unemployed American writer, down on his luck and burnt-out from writing too many trite Western horse-opera stories, comes to Vienna at the invitation of a friend just after the end of World War II. Already the city has been partitioned into four zones by the victorious Allied powers which are now squabbling among themselves. The writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), goes to meet his friend at his apartment only to be told by the porter (Peter Horbiger) that he has just seen the friend, Harry Lime, die in a road accident. Martins attends Lime’s funeral where he meets two British Army police officers Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). The writer is contacted by Lime’s friends who had picked him up after the road accident. As time goes by, Martins is struck by the differences in the stories the porter and Lime’s friends and doctor tell him about Lime’s accident – in particular, the discrepancy between the number of men who attended Lime at the accident scene – and determines to find out how Lime really died and if his death had been an accident.

While investigating Lime’s disappearance, Martins meets an actress, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), whom Lime had helped escape from Czechoslovakia with forged papers, and develops feelings for her. He learns from Calloway about Lime’s trafficking of diluted penicillin on the black market and how this has created a public health catastrophe for Viennese children. Martins decides to leave Vienna but then catches a glimpse of Lime (Orson Welles) who has been living in Vienna’s underground sewer network. Martins reports Lime’s exstence to Calloway who then orders the man’s grave to be exhumed; the men discover another body in Lime’s coffin. Russian police officers come for Anna to take her back to Czechoslovakia and Martins tries to negotiate safe passage for her in return for helping Calloway catch Lime.

The plot is fairly straightforward though second and viewings may be necessary to understand all its details. There are no hackneyed twists to manipulate suspense and tension into a rollercoaster ride and the dilemma that Martins faces in doing what is right and ethical at the cost of betraying a friend and losing a loved person supplies the bulk of the tension in the film’s second half. All the action and thrills occur in the prolonged (maybe too prolonged) chase scene in the city’s sewer system. Joseph Cotten deftly underplays the would-be hero who hardly understands what he gets himself into and is out of his depth coping with life in Vienna; he achieves a good if difficult balance of making Martins look capable when he isn’t without making the character look too bumbling. Viewers see how Martins came to be in the situation that he finds himself at the beginning of the film: he can only write trashy fiction because he lacks self-knowledge and understanding of human psychology, and is basically superficial and ignorant.The baby-faced Welles plays his dubious Harry Lime role very well indeed: initially he seems callous in his dismissal of the children’s deaths caused by his black market activities in his “cuckoo clock” speech that compares the cultures and histories of Italy and Switzerland but one might consider his motives which may be selfish, altruistic or both in stealing a wonder medicine from military hospitals and selling it to hospitals desperately needing it to treat children, and in assisting Anna and maybe others like her flee Communist rule. He delivers the film’s best acting performance in his lone scene where he is trapped on a staircase; weakened by a gunshot wound, the strain showing on his face, he makes desperate efforts to escape the police and Martins homing in on him. Valli plays the basically passive Anna subtly and gives the impression of a complex woman who has moral depth but can also be naive about human nature. Mention also should be made of Howard as Calloway: he plays his part straight but turns out to be as much a┬ámaster manipulator of Martins as Lime himself.

Taking Martins’s point of view, the cinematography by Robert Krasker emphasises many shots taken at crazy angles to reflect the man’s bewilderment and failure to connect with and appreciate the world he has just flown into. Vienna itself becomes a significant character with otherwise purely historic and harmless buildings made to look sinister and menacing due to camera placements and streets at night denuded of traffic and pedestrians so as to resemble an American Wild West ghost-town of Martins’s imaginings, where stand-offs and shoot-outs could occur. Some scenes are filmed at a considerable distance to emphasise some aspect of the plot or the relationship between characters: the film’s closing scene in which Anna walks past Martins contemptuously is filmed at a distance from them both to show Martins’s alienation in a world he has failed to understand and which now rejects him.

The musical soundtrack by Anton Karras, composed almost entirely on zither, has a Western flavour that comments ironically on the film’s setting in post-WW2 Vienna, on the edge between the capitalist West and the Communist East, a place of promise and opportunity but also a hive of vice and corruption, just as towns springing up across the American West in the 1800s as a result of mining and farming booms could either be successful cities or abandoned ghost-towns. The sharp, vigorous melodies don’t behave as a musical soundtrack should do, accentuating tension where needed and bringing it down: instead, the music can be abrupt and intrusive to the point of being annoying. The purpose is to encourage viewers to “see” the events as Martins might be seeing them through a familiar mental framework that allows him to participate in them. The possibility that he might end up wrecking his life and the lives of others doesn’t occur to him.

By film’s end though viewers have no sense that Martins has really learned anything from his experience: he appears to want to resume a relationship with Anna and seems genuinely puzzled when she ignores him. The reasons she rejects him are many and could include resentment at being used as bait or anger that someone she loved, however flawed he was, is gone. Although the film is very much of its time and deals with issues springing from a particular historical event, its enquiry into misplaced loyalties and betrayal, and how people cope with changed circumstances in which good becomes bad and bad becomes good, remains relevant to modern audiences in a world where the political and economic order established by the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II has been breaking down for a long time and might now be in its death throes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.