Vincent Cassar
October 28, 2022

Why The Third Man is so much more than a film noir

It’s a comedy-thriller, a western about war, an expressionist neorealist fantasy and an existential Commedia dell’arte masterpiece. 

It is also a great love story.

I saw The Third Man (1949) after bunking off school. It was so good I bunked-off the following week and watched it again. On each subsequent viewing as I get older I see different truths in it.

A writer of westerns, Holly Martins arrives in postwar Vienna seeking his best friend, Harry Lime who “awkwardly” appears to have died. He contacts Lime’s friends all of whom are either wearing cologne or the stench of death.

The opening images of devastation and the shots of ruined splendours made it feel authentic, as though I was witnessing the truth. It had been shot in situ so in one sense I was. Everyone has to step over rubble just to get to their beds.

Seeing everyday life in pre-war cinemas was rare. The advent of Italian neorealism in the 40s changed that.

It is a very stylised version of reality but the starving frightened people on the streets, the children’s mental ward was still real enough to move me.

Cinematographer Robert Krasker was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. For him the world was chiaroscuro. He used massive lights casting gigantic shadows causing illumination and concealment.

The extensive use of Dutch angles meant not seeing things straight on suggesting something had gone wrong with reality.

Rather than the sugary confectionery of waltzes, Anton Karas’ “gritty and dirty” zither is perfectly odd in and out of place. Its jangling melancholy plucks at my synapses to this day. The trailer said you would be in a Dither with his zither.

This isn’t Santa Fe. I’m not a Sheriff. And you aren’t a cowboy.

The battle between the light and the heavy radiance and shade are not just played out visually but in the tone that moves from absurd comedy to serious drama in a beat.

The “Bal-loon” Seller and a Parrot

Martins feels he is never quite being taken seriously even by Anna, Harry’s lover, who can’t even get his name right. This exchange between the wonderfully sardonic major and Martins is typical.

MARTINS: I’m only a little fool. I’m an amateur at it, you’re a professional. You’ve been shaking your cap and bells all over town.

CALLOWAY: I don’t want another murder in this case, and you were born to be murdered.

Anna, a Czech actress who represents part of the Old Vienna, is played by Valli, dubbed by Mussolini as the world’s most beautiful woman. She gets bottles of whisky or packets of tea instead of bouquets.

And was my blueprint for love for so long a girl of spirit who laughed too much.

Anna moves from breathless despair to calm capability in a heartbeat. Recalling Harry in a myriad of ways. She’s having love scenes with herself the heartbreak in her voice when she talks about Harry’s letters as if she has gone somewhere very intimate and placed her mind there tenderly.

I loved him. You loved him. What good have we done him?

Despite Martin’s intentions she only really has eyes (and tears) for Harry.

The lack of translation befuddles one’s mind, we can never be certain what is actually going on. Perfectly mirroring Vienna which was run by four different Allied Powers with different languages.

Some of the impressive cast improvised their lines.

Orson Welles came up with this:

…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and blood-shed; but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!

It’s a line worthy of Graham Greene who wrote the screenplay/novel. He was a Catholic who used his writing to pose moral dilemmas within contemporary political situations.

In a century where Russia and China’s dots had taken control and after a war where millions had died, Greene/Lime asks:

Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots
stopped moving forever?

Orson Welles was a revelation. He was that fat bearded joke who did TV adverts and hosted crap Mystery shows. Admittedly with a glint in his eye. His voice was so seductive. As if he was gargling sherry while coating his tongue with olive oil. Extra virgin of course.

Lime appears an hour in. You only see his charm. He’s in just three scenes. On repeat viewing he seems to be in it less and less. One day he won’t be there at all.

Greene’s friend and ex-MI6 boss Kim Philby was Soviet double-agent dubbed The Third Man. He had told Greene about the vast sewers where he had helped Communists escape and was now an international dead zone thus a haven for black marketeers.

The scene in the sewers is an amazing piece of aural sculpture like a Tunnel of Babel where we can never be sure where the voices are coming from and how close the danger is.

I was shocked by the ending. Maybe that’s why I watched it again the following week. Cos I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen. Run that past me again. He doesn’t get the girl. Every other story had told me that never happens. The denouement was of huge significance personally.

The finale was at Reed’s insistence. Maybe Greene was still smarting after being sued by 20th CenturyFox for suggesting Shirley Temple was being exploited by her guardians to excite clergymen by unprincipled use of her dimpled depravity.

The whole film seemed to be operating on a different level. All the characters’ reasons for doing things are skewed by an alternative. It was as though the meaning behind words like loyalty and trust and love was in a kaleidoscope of variations. It should be no surprise then when the porter gets heaven and hell the wrong way round.

The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of stories.

For years I would have done what Martins does without question. Try to ensure Anna’s safety because it was the chivalrous thing to do. Now, seeing her as an independent strong woman quite capable of looking after herself. That attitude seems meaningless. And even offensive.

If you want to sell your service, I’m not willing to be the price.

I can appreciate the way she loves

“You can’t love a person less just because you find out more about them”

Which is the unconditional love we all crave!

Vincent Cassar

Vince is co-host of The Wonderbook and a published author and playwright Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.