According to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), 1949’s The Third Man is the only non-American film to have made the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, and ranks number one in the British Film Institute’s BFI 100, a similar list compiled in 1999. The Third Man was not only well-regarded decades after its release, but was a commercial and critical success in its own era.
What is so special about this film?
The creative talent involved with The Third Man was considerable, as was the creative tension between them. The co-producer was legendarily difficult mogul David O. Selznick, a micromanager extraordinaire whose other film triumphs included back-to-back Academy Award winning films Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). The other producer, and the director, was Carol Reed (a man), equally as stubborn as Selznick, and a talent cited by no less than director Steven Spielberg as an influence. The screenwriter was Graham Greene, a former spy and acclaimed novelist who had nearly all of his books made into films.
The Third Man was developed by Reed and Greene from a single sentence scribbled down by Greene: I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, amongst a host of strangers in the Strand.” (Newley, 2004) Reed and Selznick fought every step of the way, and Orson Welles, whom Reed insisted to play Harry Lime, the central mystery figure to the film, was his usual temperamental yet brilliant self. Though selfishly refusing to complete some of the sewer scenes which appear at the film’s’ end, Welles also was responsible for writing what is arguably the film’s best speech and perhaps one of the best speeches in movie history in Italy for 30 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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. Greene himself both conceded Welles’ authorship of this dialogue and its brilliance, no small gesture for an author of unparalleled brilliance himself.
Beyond the remarkable power generated by the creative tension between the film’s key players was the content of the narrative itself. Far from being a simple-minded portrayal of good vs. evil and good people vs. evil people, like so many films of the World War II era, The Third Man was fearlessly ambiguous and complex in its morality. Harry Lime, who summons his best friend (a mediocre Western novelist) Holly Martins to Vienna — ostensibly for a writing job — is revered by both Martins and Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt. Lime turns out to have been a completely selfish cretin, who cared little for Anna and who intended to use Martins in his racketeering scheme to sell watered-down penicillin on the Austrian black market. (The one exception is the fact that Lime obtains for Anna a forged passport to prevent her repatriation to Communist Czechoslovakia by the Russians.) Nonetheless, Anna is unable to stop loving Harry Lime, and Holly Martins only turns on Lime after a British major takes Martins to a pediatric ward and shows him children who are dead or suffering because of Lime’s racket. Even Martins’ redemption is flawed, as by film’s end he has fallen in love with and made a play for his best friend’s girl.However, Anna coldly rejects him in a stunning sequence at film’s end that went completely counter to the conventional wisdom of the time that demanded a happy ending.
As witty, stylized, and ‘cool’ as the narrative and dialogue are reminiscent of Casablanca — the narrative itself reflects a rather bleak and paranoid sense of post World War II psychology. Just as the main characters themselves are morally complex or flawed, the narrative itself — including the setting of Vienna paints a picture of a universe where the locus points of good and evil are difficult to find and loyalties are blurred and conflicting. The Third Man is a window into the future of the Cold War, where global conflicts between good and evil were to be played out on local stages by players who have little practical use themselves for the notions of good and evil. Director Carol Reed emphasized the lurking sense of paranoia and betrayal possibly waiting around any corner by the remarkable use of lighting most notably, stark shadows and a plethora of odd, oblique camera angles. One of the most famous entrances in movie history in Orson Welles’ first appearance as Harry Lime in the film two-thirds of the way through the story, though he is referenced in virtually every scene up to this point. Lime is hiding in the shadows across the street from Martins. All that is initially visible are Lime’s shoes and Anna’s cat, which she mentioned in passing was fond of Lime. A neighbor across the way hears Martins’ yelling after the elusive Lime, and turns on her bedroom light. In a flash, it illuminates Lime’s face perfectly, and Welles delivers a telltale smirk/grin before disappearing into the night again. (Anton Karas’ zither music, which Reed insisted upon using over Selznick’s wishes for an upbeat score, help round out the stylized grimness that permeates the film.)
In a way, Harry Lime embodies the idealistic faith human beings place in institutions, in loved ones, in friendships, in straightforward black-and-white paradigms of morality. The unraveling of his mystique and the heartbreaking reveal of his amoral spiritual core reflected the stark truths of the World War which had just ended, and the Cold War which was to come both great struggles between great competing ideologies who promised much in exchange for allegiances, but failed to deliver. The Anna Schmidts and Holly Martins of the world were left only with each other, and even those tenuous bonds were often of little use.
Even the title of this film, The Third Man, suggests a way of thinking that rejects the notion of binary oppositions, i.e., only one of two choices, and demanded that the audience accept a world far more morally complex than they were used to living. Beyond being a film that succeeds in the realms of pure entertainment, The Third Man succeeds in this deeper thematic manner as well