I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?
Apparently in Vienna.
Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time.
J. – The Third Man is one a scant handful of films that I purchased without seeing it first. Many years ago I’d read a bit about it and became super intrigued with the whole idea of the film before I ever sat down for a viewing, and so I snapped up the Criterion DVD and threw it on. It was a strange viewing experience then, right from the disorienting opening credits that flash atop the vibrating strings of a zither. And to be honest it remains a strange experience for me now, even after multiple viewings. I think that’s because I love this film but I also find it strangely tedious. It drags in places — the ending chase through the sewers definitely goes on way too long, for example — but there is so much about it that is utterly captivating and it is one of the few films I know where something new leaps out at me with every viewing. It both grips me and threatens to make me yawn.
Thankfully, there is much more of the gripping than the yawning. To that end, the thing that always grabs the most attention in The Third Man is the wild camerawork and lighting, and boy are both justly praised. I am a huge fan of cinema that makes sharp distinctions between light and dark, particularly nighttime scenes where the setting is inky black but pierced by bright, white lights. It’s typically a noir element, but such chiaroscuro lighting works fantastically in other story types (see the Western My Darling Clementine or the Japanese period drama Story of the Last Chrysanthemums for ample proof). But The Third Man goes hog wild with the lighting, bathing the darkened streets of war-ravaged Vienna with bright lights that cast titanic shadows, creating glowing monuments of destruction rather than simple piles of rubble. It never once rains during the film, yet all of the streets are wet and shiny at night, creating the most remarkable incubator for nefarious doings. The movie stridently disregards reality when it comes to playing with light and shadow, and in doing so it creates an environment where even the more ludicrous elements of the plot feel not just plausible but entirely natural in a city so twisted and mad.
S. – The bombed out streets of Vienna create a jaw-dropping set for this tangled mystery. The Third Man was the first film I had watched that incorporated a devastated cityscape as part of the background scenery and on that first viewing I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Watching it again I still find the haphazard destruction unnerving. The fact that the ruins have become such a staple of everyday life that they aren’t even referred to had a huge impact on me. It is jarring to see attractive European buildings randomly interspersed with piles of tumbled brickwork that don’t raise an eyebrow from any of the players on screen. The sense of unbalance lent by the unexpected terrain is reinforced by the many and varied camera angles employed throughout. The point of view taken frequently involved extremely steep shots up towards characters, such as that of investigators peering into an open grave or revealing characters high atop a flight of stairs or racing across a mountain of rubble with the camera at its base. Even the more sedate indoor settings are often shown slightly askew. Collectively all the visual information given to the viewer appears exaggerated and not quite right, adding a sense that the hapless Holly is stumbling around in a situation that either doesn’t make sense or he just can’t understand.
For all the shifting viewpoints, the plot itself seems quite solid as the backstory is slowly revealed. A quality not always associated with noir film. What is your take on the tale told, J.?
J. – I think it’s a rather marvelous story from a plot perspective. We often avoid diving into plot here at FWAMY unless it is essential for understanding the other points we are making. And generally I think that is a wise policy, if only because the story is often the least important aspect of a great film (at least for me) and because one need only be so spoiler-y. But I think it is worth exploring in regard to The Third Man because it is so labyrinthine — and expertly handled. It’s also extremely unorthodox. The film does this wonderful slow build up of Harry Lime — a dead man whom the cops know as a villain and whom his friend Holly and his lover Anna Schmidt know as a charming man. The film is very good about dropping subtle (and not so subtle) hints concerning the truth about Harry as it moves forward, and it is such an appealing twist on the formula to have Holly, the movie’s “detective”, be the most oblivious character of the bunch. I suppose the film comes with a built-in spoiler in the opening credits — after not seeing Orson Welles for half the film it becomes obvious that he will be Lime and that the dead man is very much walking among us. But that matters little when you consider the awesome scene where he is revealed to Holly in a doorway. The staging is ludicrous — a light from an apartment all the way across the street somehow spotlighting Welles’ face — but it is supremely effective and powerfully highlighted by a push in on Welles that I swear should be cheesy but instead totally sells the moment.
But where I think the film really excels, and where the bulk of its unorthodox feel comes from, is with the characters and how they subvert convention. If you know your noir films or your detective fiction then their are certain types that one expects to encounter: the hard-boiled, hard-drinking protagonist (who may be a detective); the tough guy gangster villain, the femme fatale, the incompetent or crooked coppers. But in The Third Man everything is flipped on its head. Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway (the cop role) is neither a fool nor a crook — he is the most sensible and most caring person in the entire film. Like many noirs he seeks to keep the protagonist from pressing forward with his investigation, only in this film Calloway is totally right to be doing so — Holly Martins is a moron. Anna is not a femme fatale, she is a sensitive and selfless woman who spends the film wrapped in a cloak of mourning; and Alida Valli’s performance is low-key and steeped in a weariness that comes not from ennui but sorrow. Harry Lime is not a thug but an educated, erudite charmer — a man who can soliloquize with the best of them — basically he’s Orson Welles. And Holly Martins is no Philip Marlowe. He’s a hack and a dope — a man too selfish and too puffed up with undeserved bravado to understand the feelings of others or any truths that don’t fit his preconceived notions. He’s a drinker who doesn’t cooly sip a highball, so much as slosh about on a bar stool. And Joseph Cotten plays Holly marvelously, never once letting the viewer get behind the character for any reason other than pity. Has there ever been a detective hero who fucks up as much as Holly Martins — does he ever do anything right the whole film?
S. – Holly is an utterly charmless leading man and I love that his own sense of self-importance allows him to stride through the film spouting his thoughts to anyone in earshot without contributing anything of substance to the outcome. The cool presence of Anna, who seems to try and tolerate this old friend of her beloved, frequently seems lost in her own thoughts as Holly blathers on about his latest take on the unfolding mystery. On many occasions she calls Holly “Harry”, yet he is still obtuse enough to think he may have a shot with her. The lead investigator Calloway is wonderfully efficient and so much more believable an entity than the usual noirish portrayal of law enforcement as bumbling or careless (btw Trevor Howard is awesome). In fact these three characters are all remarkable for their ordinariness, no superheroes or sexpots here. The real genius of this set-up becomes apparent when we finally do meet Lime. Because he is so obviously extraordinary that it is immediately clear why the three central characters are all obsessed with him in their own way. Yes, the staging of our first glimpse of Lime is over the top but Welles completely owns it, with only a relatively small amount of screen time everything both attractive and vile about Harry Lime is writ large. The performances in The Third Man are first rate, it is only the pacing that leaves something to be desired.
J. – The performances are more than first rate. And I think what you said of Harry Lime is fully indicative of that. It’s a very strange role, seeing as Lime doesn’t appear until about two-thirds of the way through the film and Orson Welles really only has one scene with any dialogue. And on top of that, the character of Harry Lime has been so built up for more than an hour, making it almost impossible to live up to the expectations the audience might have about the character, but holy moly does Welles nail it. Yeah, he only has one dialogue scene, but man, what a scene it is. If we’re talking scenes that just involve two characters talking, is there a better in the history of film than the ferris wheel sequence. Welles is so charming and scary, and you can just feel Cotten being torn between his feelings for the Lime he knew and the new knowledge he has (finally) acquired in Vienna (plus a touch of faux bravado). The subtext in every look, in every line is just insane — and it is all made that much more perfect by the backdrop of the circling ferris wheel. You really believe that this entire amazing interaction takes place in one cycle of the ride. Everyone is great in The Third Man, but Welles knocks it out of the park and in doing so brings the film into the realm of the true greats.
But as we’ve both noted, the movie does drag at times. I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of days as to why that might be. Some of it is obvious. The iconic pursuit of Lime in the sewers is chock full of great shots and moments, but it just goes on too damn long. The obvious intent of the filmmakers is to build tension up to the breaking point, but instead it saps the film of momentum. But even before that there are patches that seem to lack snap. I think that the reason for this is Graham Greene. The Third Man is ostensibly a mystery thriller, and it definitely delivers chases and suspense. But it is ultimately more of a character-driven piece — you’re much more likely to find two people talking than a pursuit through the streets. It’s an approach to story that is more novelistic than cinematic — an approach that puts more of a premium on language than spectacle. I think that is a consequence of the film being written by a novelist and not a screenwriter, and the disconnect between the expectations of noir action and language-driven, character-focused mode that typically dominates the film makes it drag. This film is nowhere near as slow as, say, Letter from an Unknown Woman, but Max Ophüls’ melodrama is from the start meant to be a character-driven piece and therefore the slowness works. It doesn’t always work in The Third Man, which is a shame because there is so much here that is unimpeachably excellent.
S. – There were a few times that my attention fell away during the film. Strangely, part of it may be due to an aspect that I have just praised: the ordinariness of the main characters. In particular the boorishness of Holly as he attempts to investigate the demise of his friend. I can see that those scenes had a purpose but perhaps some tighter editing would have been able to make the point without causing my attention to fade. I think you make a good point, J., that the novelistic element of the writing may be responsible for the narrative sacrificing tension in favor of character development. Having a story unfold slowly is usually no problem for me, I guess it is the mismatched expectations of a mystery switching between tense and meandering that threw things out. During most of the film the couple of pacing missteps are of no real consequence given the excellent plot, the real let down is the dragging chase through the sewers, which looks fantastic yet goes on for so long that it undermines the impact. However, these are quite minor quibbles as The Third Man has so much to recommend it. And the final, long-lingering scene that shows two key characters wiser but no happier is fantastic.