The Third Man (1949). 93 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Starring Joseph Cotten (as Holly Martins), Alida Valli (as Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (as Harry Lime), and Trevor Howard (as Major Calloway).
The Third Man is sometimes compared to Citizen Kane. Both films prominently feature Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, both concern male friendship and betrayal, and both examine the inherent difficulties of knowing great men, men who loom large either in the eyes of society (Citizen Kane) or in the eyes of their childhood chums (The Third Man). Both also have final shots of enormous and legendary significance. But despite these similarities, the courses of the two films run through very different territory, and so I shall have to leave off comparing the two so that I might focus on what makes The Third Man so unique, so powerful, and so devastatingly moving. I am hardly alone in this assessment: Roger Ebert observed in his review of The Third Man that “[o]f all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”
Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), an American author of cowboy novels, arrives in Vienna after the Second World War looking for work. He has been promised employment by a childhood friend of his named Harry Lime. Almost immediately, Martins learns from Lime’s porter that Lime was killed in a car accident in front of his own building only days earlier. In fact, Lime’s funeral is taking place at that very moment, and Martins rushes to the cemetery. There Martins meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who works for the English sector of Vienna, the city having been divided up in the post-war years much as Berlin was. Calloway tells Martins that Lime was a dirty racketeer and that Martins should return to the States.
Martins considers what Calloway says about his old friend Lime to be slanderous and determines that he will stay in Vienna in order to clear Lime’s name. He begins to investigate the circumstances of Lime’s death and encounters an eccentric collection of characters, all Lime’s acquaintances, who tell and retell the story of Lime’s death. But Lime’s porter has something else to say. Whereas Lime’s friends all claim that there were two men with Lime when he was hit by the car, followed by Lime’s own doctor who coincidentally was coming down the street at the very time Lime died, the porter says there was a third man hovering. He promises to tell Martins more about it, but when Martins returns to speak with the porter that evening, he learns that the porter has been murdered.
While pursuing this investigation, Martins also comes into contact with Lime’s mistress, Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli). He first sees her at Lime’s funeral as she walks along a tree-lined path, a path that will become enormously important in the film’s final moments. Anna is a Czechoslovakian actress. We first see her at length during a theatrical performance of an absurd, antique German comedy, where she grins, bats her eyes, and waves a fan in a playful and coquettish manner. When Martins greets her backstage and mentions Lime’s name, however, her cheerful expression vanishes and a look of profoundest sorrow replaces it. Anna is fiercely devoted to Lime. We later learn that Lime arranged for forged papers for Anna so that she can remain in Vienna despite Russian efforts to repatriate her. She supports Martins’s campaign to clear Lime’s name and helps him to piece together the truth of what has transpired.
SPOILER ALERT! (Stop reading here if you do not want to know more about the plot.) Eventually Calloway has had his fill of Martins’s running around like a detective and shows him in plain terms what Lime was up to in Vienna. Lime was a main player in the city’s black market and was involved in many crimes, including one involving the dilution of penicillin administered to hospital patients. The watered-down drugs caused death in some and permanent brain damage in others. Moved, Martins resolves to leave Vienna, but after saying goodbye to Anna, he stops in the street. Alone and thinking he is being tailed, he calls out to the person he believes is following him, only to learn, in one of the most dramatic entrances anywhere in the cinema, that that person is Lime (Orson Welles), who stands there, grinning. Through Lime’s friends the next day, Martins arranges to meet with Lime, who agrees to see him on a ferris wheel in the city, the famous Wiener Riesenrad. There Lime utters a cold and calculating speech in which, while complaining about heartburn, he describes the people below them on the ground as moving dots and asks Martins if it would really bother him if any of those dots stopped moving — especially if their deaths meant money for him. After seeing Lime, and after another meeting with Major Calloway, Martins agrees to help take Lime down in a plot that eventually involves a chase through the Viennese sewers, where Lime meets his end.
The voiceover at the beginning of the film clues us in to the state of affairs in Vienna. If ever there was a seedy metropolis poised perfectly for a showdown of good and evil, post-war Vienna, you might say, would be it. Director Carol Reed was influenced by German expressionist filmmakers, and his many off-center camera shots and slick, dark, shining streets are reminiscent both of expressionism and film noir. His cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Academy Award for his work on the film. But part of what Krasker’s shadows and corridors reveal to us is not just that darkness and intrigue abound but also that darkness and intrigue are fairly hard to pin down because of their ubiquity. Martins strides into Vienna with the cocksure attitude of a cowboy, seeing Calloway as the enemy and Lime as the hero — in other words, seeing bad and good in clearly delineated terms — but those terms are not easily applicable in the post-war city. Lime’s transformation from childhood friend to great villain in Martins’s eyes raises important questions: How can we know a person? How well should our memories of the past inform our understanding of the present? What prevents us from seeing the truth? But these moral quandaries are not limited to Lime’s characterization. Even Calloway, who is right about Lime, eventually hands over Anna and her forged papers to the Russians in a cold bureaucratic move.
And what of Lime’s girlfriend Anna? Where does her morality lie? Eventually, she, like Martins, speaks with Calloway about Lime’s crimes and is presumably made fully aware of his offenses, yet she is completely loyal to Lime, all the way to the end. Her mourning for Lime runs very deep, and she arrives at the final sting operation that is designed to catch Lime in order to warn him that Martins has turned against him.
Some of the most beautiful scenes take place in Anna’s bedchamber, a deeply embellished relic of old Austrian architecture and interior design. When the international police raid her quarters, Anna’s elderly Austrian landlady enters, wrapped in a comforter, to plead with the men to leave. She does this all in German. The Third Man does not subtitle any of the German that is spoken in it, and there is a sizable amount of dialogue that takes place in that language. If you do not understand German, you might not fully understand that the landlady is pleading with the police to leave out of respect for Anna because Anna is a lady and this is her bedchamber — but that is okay, because her sentiments are lost on the post-war international police, too, both because they do not speak German and because the terms of the landlady’s request come from another world and another time. Martins also does not speak German, so he misses out on what she has to say as well. This is important. While not understanding everything that is being said might frustrate an ardent viewer who is not acquainted with German, nevertheless, not perceiving precisely what is going on helps us to identify with Martins’s experience. As far as language is concerned, what he does not understand, we do not understand.
Martins fundamentally also does not understand Anna. Even in the final scene, after Lime’s second funeral, when Martins cockily waits for her along the tree-lined cemetery path, he cannot begin to fathom the resentment that she feels. The scene is so moving, so full of everything that is wrong with the world. What is wrong is that Martins has apparently learned little as a result of his stay in Vienna: he actually believes that Anna will see him and veer off her path to address him, whereas she actually feels so incredibly betrayed by all that has transpired that she walks right past him. And Anna is so wrongly devoted to the scoundrel Lime, even after his death, that she refuses to see past what Martins has done. Anton Karas’s zither score is full of love and wonder as the shot proceeds, and from the instrument’s delicate and intricate movements we might expect that the rapture building in our hearts as we watch is likely to burst forth in the expressions of the characters themselves. But of course it does not, because this is a world that has been deeply scarred, both by nations and by individuals, both by the crimes of the streets and by crimes of the heart, and there is no room for the beauty that might have flourished here in another time.
What we end up with instead of love is a final glimpse of Martins lighting a cigarette and then casting it aside in frustration. Perhaps he has finally learned something. It is there that the film leaves us. That final shot was a major source of contention between the screenwriter (the novelist Graham Greene) and the director, Carol Reed. Greene envisioned a sequence in which Anna stops walking and reconciles with Martins, but Reed insisted that Anna walk straight ahead, without stopping, and past the camera. Reed was right: his ending is the conclusion to a masterpiece, whereas Greene’s would have compromised all of the dark and brooding elements that the film labors to create.
I must say that while I maintain that The Third Man is the greatest of films, I must also assert that its original trailer is one of the worst I have seen. The vintage trailer consists of a male voiceover and a female voiceover counterpart that trade lines back and forth. So: (male voice) “The third man: hated by a thousand men…” and (female voice) “…desired by one woman.” Another snippet: (male voice) “The third man: hanging is too good for him,” then (female voice) “Nothing was too good for the third man.” I do not like this trailer for several reasons. First, it attempts to create a definite persona for the third man: the trailer would like you to think that there is a third man who is a known quantity and that he is somehow the subject of the film. It even identifies the third man as Lime (male voice over a shot of Alida Valli: “Her man was the third man”). Of course, the third man is all of those things, but he is also an illusion. He is Lime, but Lime is supposed to be dead, and the third man is supposed to be a mystery–so why confirm the existence of the mysterious third man in the ad? Second, equally frustrating is the fact that the trailer wants us to identify this third man as a criminal right away, when the movie seems to be more interested in having us play along with Martins’s argument that Lime is a good and innocent man for some time. Third, I do not like the way this trailer uses the female voice, which is always projected over an image of Valli swooning, to suggest that somehow the movie is going to be a romance. (The third man is hilariously, according to the female voice, “the man on every woman’s lips!”)
To return to where I began this article, the trailer reminds me of a reproduction of a vintage poster for Citizen Kane that I owned in graduate school. It featured scenes from that film (in color), except that one of the “scenes” depicted featured a young Kane passionately embracing a young woman: something that never occurs in the film but seems to have been added to the poster to give the suggestion of sexiness. My point is that The Third Man does not need any of the qualities that its original trailer attempts to impart to it any more than Citizen Kane needs whatever that poster was trying to impart to it. The Third Man already has everything. I first saw it in college at the great U.C. Theater in Berkeley, California. When I emerged from the theater one hour and thirty-three minutes later, I was convinced that I had just seen the greatest movie I would ever see. I still feel the same way.