This weekend my wife and I had a wonderful experience watching the film noir classic: The Third Man. One of the most highly acclaimed British film noir masterpieces, The Third Man was written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles, the powerhouse cast carries the script to new heights in the genre. The chilling score was composed by Anton Karas, and exclusively utilizes the zither (the following year The Third Man‘s title cut topped all of the international music charts).
If you’ve been to noirWHALE before, then you know that our next step will be holding this film noir classic up to our pre-determined noir definition. In this way we can systematically evaluate each piece in the noir genre in a similar way. Please try to keep up:
1) The Seedy Underworld
Vienna, post World War II. Disheveled locals shuffle with broken spirits from alley to alley while allied forces police the city like a military zone. The incomparable graininess and darkness of the cinematography lends a foreboding weight to each scene.
2) The Anti-Hero
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp western writer from America, visits Vienna at the request of his long-time best friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry has assured Holly that he has a wealth of opportunities in the post-war city. Upon arriving, Holly discovers that his best friend has recently been killed in a freak accident, and instead of warm hands and friendly faces Holly finds himself at a graveside service in a city of strangers. We can drop the “anti” prefix and simplify our understanding of Holly by calling him “hero,” because his only failing appears to be that he isn’t a particularly good writer.
3) The Femme Fatale
Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is an actress on the Vienna stage, and Harry Lime’s lover/girlfriend. Holly sees her at his friend’s graveside and eventually makes inquiries after her. Through meeting her and discussing Harry’s death, Holly begins to suspect that it was certainly not a freak accident. As he and Anna investigate further into the death they find that there is much more at stake than murder. Anna is a powerful plot device as Holly quickly develops feelings for her that drive him to make his decisions based upon her interests. She is unwaveringly committed to the deceased Harry though, and Holly’s advances are for naught.
Late in the film noir, when you discover that the “third man” is Harry, and that he is very much alive, you begin to see the theme of misogyny manifest itself. Harry seems to care nothing for Anna, viewing her as a mere plaything. He even uses her later to distract attention from himself by attempting to get her deported from Vienna. Not a very nice way to treat such a devoted woman.
Holly wishes to redeem the memory of his lost best friend by discovering the identity of his killer. The only problem is the fact that Harry is alive, and has faked his own death by killing someone else. Therein lies the magic of this screenplay, for Holly’s (and the audience’s) perception of the villain changes entirely in one short scene. Holly shifts from redeeming his friend Harry from a killer, to redeeming his friend Harry from himself. The most poignant scene is in the sewer stairwell at the end of the film noir, when the dying Harry looks with a pleading regret at his best friend who uses a gun to end his misery.
6) Loss of Innocence
Harry’s racket was watering down penicillin so he could sell more of it to the hospitals of war-torn Vienna. As a result he maimed many that would have been saved, especially children and the elderly. Holly learns of Harry’s disgusting scheme and is shocked that he has been blind to the wicked nature of someone so close to him for so long.
The only hint of eroticism within the entire film noir The Third Man is the fact that Harry and Anna are lovers. There are also two scenes where it is implied that Anna changes in the room but the audience never sees so much as a bare shoulder…. so I wouldn’t really classify it as erotic.
Amazingly well done, The Third Man is a classic film noir masterpiece that I am happy to have watched. Almost forgot! The last scene is incredible, because Holly misses his plane in order to patch things up with Anna (she is furious with him for betraying Harry), and she refuses to speak with him. The audience is given NO CLOSURE! I loved it. (ps, if you didn’t watch the youtube vid embedded at the top you are really missing out because it is unbelievably awesome).