The Third Man
SPOILERS. To my astonishment, about fifteen minutes into this movie I realized that I had never seen it before. I’ve been a film buff since I was twelve, and somehow I had not seen one of the all-time classic movies. And what’s even stranger, I had been sure that I had seen it. What I’ve realized is that I’ve seen certain scenes from The Third Man so many times in documentaries about movies or about Orson Welles that I expanded that in my mind to remembering that I had seen it. The mind is a funny thing, you know? If you are a film buff I’ll bet you have seen the discovery of Harry Lime in the dark doorway a dozen times. That famous little smile that the supposedly dead man gives to his old friend Holly …
The movie is a masterpiece in so many ways. I think of it as European noir, quite distinct from American noir. It won the Oscar for Best B&W Photography, and was nominated for Best Editing. Both these elements are superlative. The nighttime photography of the deserted, wet streets of Vienna is just awesome. The final chase through the sewers is amazing. The choice of off-kilter camera angles is very creative, recalling German expressionism of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The script is witty and tight, the acting by Joseph Cotton is great. A lot of people wanted a bigger star for the part of Holly, like Jimmy Stewart, but director Carol Reed held out for Cotton, and he was right.
The only area I had any problems with was the music. I realize I will be in the minority here. I liked the “Third Man Theme” played over the opening credits, but many times later I found the crashing arrival of the zither at dramatic moments, and the almost jaunty music with scenes that are anything but humorous to be very distracting. I wouldn’t have recommended replacing it with a more standard, dark score, but I felt that a lot of the scenes would have played better with no music at all.
The ending, the final shot, is one of the best in cinema. Holly is leaning against a car at the side of the road. Anna is walking toward the camera, emerging from the vanishing point of a long tree-lined but bleak-looking road. He is hoping to speak to her, re-kindle their relationship. But she marches right past him, never even looking his way. Incredibly, Graham Green, the author of the original screenplay, wanted her to stop, and for the two to embrace or some bullshit like that. It just goes to show you, sometimes the writer can be wrong, wrong, wrong about his own work. The worst example that comes to mind is Stephen King with The Mist. King got his way, unfortunately, but Carol Reed overruled Green, and it was the right thing to do. A happy ending to this story would have been incredibly phony.
You can’t watch this film without asking yourself, would I have helped the police get Harry Lime? What if my best friend in the whole world turned out to be killing people and crippling children, all for a few lousy pounds? Would I turn him in? The answer, for me, is yes, in a heartbeat. I would also happily throw the switch on the electric chair, drop the cyanide into the bucket of acid, or put the noose around his neck and pull the handle on the gallows. I would not take any pleasure in this. It would probably hit me hard. But I would have to realize that the man was a sociopath with no true human feelings at all, and thus could have felt no real friendship with me. He was an imposter, a murderer, and deserved to die for what he did.