The Third Man’s opening sets the story up perfectly. A short speech narrated by an unnamed racketeer (the director, Carol Reed) tells us everything we need to know about post-war Vienna in all of its squalor. The film was actually shot in Vienna in the late forties, right after the end of the war, and we can see bombed out buildings, piles of rubble, and foreign soldiers swarming around all four military zones. Everything is in chaos, nobody trusts the authorities, and only opportunistic criminals seem to making a profit, giving us a perfect film noir beginning.
Enter Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a very out of place and incredibly naïve hack writer fresh from the states. He’s described as “happy as a lark and without a cent,” looking for an old friends of his named Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who is supposed to give him a job. He must be really desperate to come all the way from America to war-ravaged Austria, or perhaps just really trusting. This shows the strength of his relationship with Harry, that he trusts him enough to travel this far. However, tragedy strikes and Harry dies shortly before Holly arrives, leaving him trying to figure out what happened to his buddy and potential meal ticket. This is when things start to get even stranger. At first it seems simple; he was hit by a car, an automobile accident, right? Maybe… but since his own driver hit him, he is surrounded by people he knew and his own doctor arrives coincidentally moments later to pronounce him dead, anyone would start to get suspicious. Everyone seems to be hiding something, but Holly discovers another witness to the accident, the porter, who is afraid to get involved with the police. The porter saw a third man carry Harry’s body across the street after he was hit, when everyone else says two.
At this point, I’ve taken you through about half of the film. I refuse to go any further! At the half-way point something occurs that changes the whole murder mystery story into a moral dilemma involving guilt and the value of life. I cannot give away this game changing event.
Though I neglected to mention this previously, Holly has two characters that guide him (or try to) through his moral indecision. Anna (Valli), Harry’s actress girlfriend who still loves him despite his turning her over to the Russians, and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British officer who informs Holly of Harry’s past treachery. Everybody is mixed up in something except Holly, but that soon changes as he flip flops between loyalty, advised by Anna, and morality, advocated by Calloway. No matter what one side is going to have to lose.
I love how out of place Holly is throughout the film. Everyone seems to be trying to get him to leave when he is getting too close to the truth, or when he is just getting in the way. Basically everyone speaks German here except Holly, which keeps him out of the loop occasionally. In several scenes he shouts into the street, just being that typical loud American that doesn’t know when he’s not wanted. His awkwardness in his surroundings relates well to his inner conflict, not to mention offering some of the only humorous moments in the film. Initially, the only reason he is allowed to stay is so he can give a lecture on the modern novel for the British cultural enrichment group, and when he does this it cannot be plainer that he doesn’t fit in.
Besides the straight up story, this film is probably most noted for its location, camera work, and its soundtrack. I think there are more “tilty camera!” shots in this movie that level ones, but it’s not like I was counting, so I can’t be sure. The black and white fits the bleak location and story perfectly, while bringing in harsh streetlights at key moments, complete with cobblestones and running water to reflect it off of. The wind blowing leaves around at Harry’s funeral and the final scene gives a feeling of transition, both for the characters in the movie and the city in general. The music is the most interesting of all. Reed picked up Anton Karas playing the zither in a bar and decided to use him and his music for the film. I had never heard or heard of a zither before (or since) this movie. It sounds sort of like a guitar, but pluckier. Plucky is not a word I would use to describe anything else in this movie, but it works wonderfully regardless. It’s almost as if the music is saying to us, “ahh, irony.”
This is a terrific film, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I will warn you though, you do have to pay attention, or you’re liable to miss some of the story. I found it easy enough to follow when I actually payed attention; the first time I made the mistake of watching it with an overly talkative and inattentive group. It’s well worth it if you like film noir, mysteries, WWII, or moral indecision.
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