The Third Man
Director: Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, Siegfried Breuer, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Hedwig Bleibtreu, Herbert Halbik. Screenplay: Graham Greene (based on a story by Graham Greene and Alexander Korda).

Photo © 1949 London Film Productions
Blending wry British wit with sleek, high-contrast menace, fusing the visual tropes of '40s film noir with neorealist attentions to the blights and hallmarks of rubbled European cities, The Third Man comes spectacularly close to being all things for all people. "I only do comedies, I don't play tragedy," sighs Alida Valli's knowing and morose actress Anna Schmidt, and it's a tribute to Graham Greene's spry and surprising script and even more to Carol Reed's stylish and crystalline direction that we can't tell if the movie holds Anna to her word or not. No one, not Reed, not Greene, not star Joseph Cotten, certainly not composer Anton Karas, overlooks the comic absurdity of protagonist Holly Martins's arrival in postwar Vienna to meet a rascally old friend named Harry Lime, only to find that Harry's coffin, with Harry in it, was trundled out of his opulent apartment only ten minutes before Holly shows up. Holly, a writer of pulpy Westerns, quickly applies his narrative acumen to the incoherent details surrounding Harry's alleged death. Thus, the film opens and exploits two sets of lingering questions, one suggesting that Harry may have died under very fishy circumstances, the other implying that Holly's penny-ante talent prepares him neither for the morbid complexities of this scenario nor for its criminal and political stakes. He's a virtual grandpappy to the little Lebowski (if less rococo in his listlessness), ambling through a culture and an ad-hoc investigation that he hardly understands, his helplessness underscored by the structural joke of the film's narrative and topographical action: the British police are digging, the Russians may or may not be cooperating, the French at least offer a tempting refuge to characters in flight from rapidly mounting tensions, but the unseen American quarter of Vienna has nothing and no one to offer to anyone. Less implicitly, The Third Man bubbles with comic leitmotifs (characters chronically mispronouncing each other's names and failing to understand each other's languages) and laugh-out-loud asides, as when the affable police officer Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), the only character who has heard of Martins and read his books, praises a novel set in Santa Fe and adds, "I've always wanted to visit Texas me'self, Sir."

Even when the film accommodates jokes like this one—or farcical asides like the Arts and Culture lecture that Martins stumbles into giving and fumbles outrageously—the sharp diagonal lines of the compositions, the absolute blackness saturating part or most of nearly every frame, and the deep-focus spectacle of Viennese picking over and scrambling across their city maintain an abiding tension and melancholy throughout The Third Man. If the movie becomes a tragedy, it isn't because a man has died (if, indeed, he has!), or because his lover mourns him, or even because an entire hospital ward of ailing children have possibly been maimed by this bon vivant and childhood chum whom Holly was bouncing over to see. The assault on Vienna squats at the center of the film, all the more poignant for the prodigious architectural glories that have survived, imploring some form of address (much less redress) that the pathetic, misguided world of men and women is never going to furnish. Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker lend the suspenseful proceedings and the psychological characterizations an engaging majesty, but they cannot disguise—and surely don't wish to—the pettiness of motive, the unrequitedness of love, and the offhandedness of cynicism that persistently mark the central narrative.

How wonderful of the movie to file these hard-edged briefs on humanity without the clichéd literalisms and manichean dualisms that postwar films and film noirs often have a hard time avoiding. The actors commit to their characters and to the expansive range of social affects on which Reed so wonderfully insists; they are not stuck playing thudding embodiments of good, evil, avarice, or redemption. Their agendas and trajectories are not cracked wide open for narrative convenience, or sculpted in the interest of audience reassurance. Even the odious Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), a palimpsest of anti-aristocratic and homophobic connotations, invites a morsel of sympathy when we find him playing the violin in a low-rent dive to make ends meet in his exhausted city. Later, the most malign character in the movie speaks the most philosophically and poetically, and scores the most infamous, most scandalously funny laugh-line, about cuckoo clocks. Trevor Howard deftly communicates the shrewdness and procedural competence of Major Calloway without confusing those attributes with personal likability, and Joseph Cotten knows he is playing a scamp and a drunk, as well as an audience surrogate of roused conscience and bruised idealism. The film expresses horrible suffering without leering into a hospital crib or burrowing voyeuristically into those anxious spaces to which the Viennese retreat whenever they nervously shutter their windows. The film says more about soured affections, inevitable compromise, inadvertent heroism, and moral confrontation by cutting away from a climactic gunshot than by lingering sensationally over it, as many another director would understandably have done.

Which is to say, if The Third Man is a tragedy, it isn't just the tragedy of a hobbled city, scribbled with ruins and parsed into zones of occupation that can't communicate and don't cooperate. It's also the tragedy of Cotten's Holly, neither a decent man nor an indecent one: horrified, yes, to face the extent of his friend's imputed misdeeds, but wrestling in silence—it's all in the actor's face—with the moral implications of his tie with this man. We hear only the vaguest reports of Harry and Holly's sozzled and pranksterish friendship back home, a wispy non-portrait that is darkly complemented by Harry's casual insistence to Holly that he "never cut him out of anything." One cannot believe that any of these boys' hometown adventures were as dastardly as what Harry has since been up to, but does there exist a continuum of ethical error, a dotted line or even a solid arc that connects the insolence and self-absorption of youth (and/or of American isolationism) with the treacheries of maturity (and/or the grotty conspiracies of the Continent)? Is Harry part of Holly? Is that why, in this city of Freud, Anna Schmidt can't help but slip into calling Holly by a dead man's name? Freud teaches us that jokes are culture's instruments for translating subconscious desires into language and making them acceptable as discourse. Which might mean, in a romantic reduction of Freud, that comedy is always, semi-secretly, tragedy. The Third Man is almost constantly funny and uninterruptedly sad, no less in a barroom reverie than in a gangbusters chase sequence in the Viennese sewers. A bitter pill in a succulent coating, it boasts the momentum of a literary page-turner, thanks largely to the fleet, exciting edits by Oswald Hafenrichter, and the ironic dazzle of a Wildean play. Yes, the repetitions of that jaunty zither score can get relentless, entailing some awfully on-the-nose counterpoint to dark revelations and implications. Sometimes The Third Man plays like a glossy, impeccable put-on by artists besotted with their own craftsmanship, but the active participation and competing responses of a large audience are never forestalled, as they tend to be in more truly arrogant films. One can consume The Third Man as pure entertainment, as millions of people have, but in the complexity and maturity of its frictions among images, sounds, tempo, and story, it's an emblem of cinema at its purest and best. A

(in June 1999: A–)

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Director: Carol Reed
Best Cinematography (Black & White): Robert Krasker
Best Film Editing: Oswald Hafenrichter

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Grand Prize of the Festival (Best Picture)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best British Film

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