| Chris Polley |
The Third Man screens at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, February 20 to Tuesday, February 22. Scoll to the end of this post for tickets and more information.
As a teacher, the most unnerving scene for me in British filmmaker Carol Reed’s ever-enduring, post-war thriller The Third Man (1949) has nothing to do with its shadowy figures or labyrinthine sewers. Instead, it’s when the protagonist, pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins (played with equal parts chutzpah and aloofness by Joseph Cotten), attempts to lecture an eager Austrian crowd of literary types only to see everyone quickly decide the man from across the pond is of little interest to them. While Martins is stressed out of his own mind for, indeed, very shadowy/labyrinthine reasons, it is this moment that frustrates me most in the film. The audience thins out one by one, shuffling out of the hall in disappointment, and even though Martin’s life is at risk, I find myself grimacing as I imagine what it’d be like to get that kind of reaction from my students.
Luckily, I feel modestly comfortable speaking to a room of teenagers in a familiar environment about subjects I feel moderately qualified to talk about. Our American hero (zero?) in The Third Man, however, is undeniably out of his depth from the film’s opening frames. He arrives in Vienna ready to entertain a job offer from an old friend named Harry Lime, but immediately after the title sequence, the film clues the audience to see that something’s off about this Yankee’s arrival in the middle of Europe right after the war. Before Martins even speaks, the film’s sparse but curious and rather lively score, performed solo by zither player Anton Karas, suggests that something is amiss. As Will Perkins of The Art of the Title notes, “Like Vienna, the tune is immediately alluring and attractive, but despite that initial appeal, it hints that something very untoward, very wrong might be happening just out of sight.” Taking this interpretation one step further, Cotten’s urgent stride through the foreign town’s cobblestone streets suggests that perhaps, to the locals around him, Martins is actually the untoward element. He, in fact, is the other – not the British occupiers or the Viennese. Again, the parallel to my teaching career is cringingly apparent; it took me a good long while to realize I was the one that was outnumbered and out of touch, and that pretending that I wasn’t was helping no one.
One of the film’s great magic tricks is that we might not even recognize this subtext as Americans viewing the best British film of all time, according to BFI in 1999—rather, we might watch and immediately place ourselves in the shoes of our de facto gumshoe Holly Martins, who quickly learns that Harry Lime, his path to secure employment, died in a horrendous accident shortly before his arrival. And this is, naturally, when our man with a knack for fiction starts to pick apart the versions of the story he’s been fed by eyewitnesses, law enforcement, and mutual friends. “Good for him,” we think, “now he’ll get to the bottom of it.” And while Martins reconstructs the narrative, Reed has a bit of fun bandying about the film’s main character like a ragdoll getting tossed around between wolves, each member of the supporting cast taking turns ripping him apart at the seams, scene by scene.
Sure, Martins gets plenty of chances to challenge both the Viennese residents and the lingering British military forces, but what’s arguably most mesmerizing about the whole affair is that the twisty cat-and-mouse game goes down with such ease and narrative energy that when the truth is ultimately revealed, it’s a veritable punch to the gut. Equally playful and menacing is that the big reveal involves a devilishly magnificent Orson Welles in one of his best roles, which I’m well aware is saying a lot, but so much of the film’s suspense is derived from the anticipation of Welles finally appearing on camera.
While Welles got to play against type and subvert expectations, the script did something similar. In the introduction to his novella based on the film, Third Man screenwriter, and English writer of various canonical novels and short stories, Graham Greene wrote, “The other day in London a surgeon took two friends to see the film. He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had himself enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the war when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.” Greene was clearly not just writing a potboiler that happened to take place in one of the most dour time periods and locales in American history. He managed to reel in the viewer looking for escapism and intrigue, but instead we are met with a reckoning of the banality of evil and post-war guilt.
This allows for a bumbling out-of-work writer like Martins to, basically by default, remain the film’s comparatively moral superior, though he doesn’t exactly walk away a victor in the end. Instead, that honor goes to Croation actor Alida Valli’s character, Anna Schmidt—Lime’s former flame and Martins’s current obsession–– in a deliciously subversive take on the femme fatale trope. Despite exuding a radiant sadness, Schmidt remains on the sidelines for the majority of the picture. (Reed sure did like to play with screen time expectations.) Moreover, Australian director of photography Robert Krasker largely favors canted angles that continually emphasize Martins’s disorienting fish-out-water state and Valli’s frustrating evasiveness throughout the film. Yet, as the story’s coda trails off, the lens straightens and gets downright sumptuously symmetrical, while Schmidt walks down center frame, casually ignoring our protagonist as she wanders into oblivion.
Koraljka Suton of Cinephilia & Beyond explains, “Surprisingly enough, one of the rare straight shots in the movie was not filmed by Krasker, but rather by German cameraman Hans Schneeberger, who was left uncredited.” And while the expressionism is bold both here and throughout the film, the framing coyly suggests that this is Schmidt’s picture, not Martins’s. He just happened to walk into it. It’s telling that the division between nationalities determines the film’s literal construction both narratively and behind the scenes – Martins is othered both with the lens and the ice-cold shoulder that Schmidt gives him as the story concludes.
In an interview with biographer Charles Thomas Samuels, Reed spoke of his contemporaneous preference for “real” or “honest” endings rather than worrying too much about commercial viability. Samuels challenged the director, as surely many did (Reed graduated from breezy adventure comedies to dark noirs to Oscar-winning musicals so effortlessly that few make the argument that he’s anything close to an auteur), but Reed offers his own reveal about The Third Man and its admittedly dour but somehow still incredibly satisfying conclusion. In their encounter, Reed rewinds to the film’s first exchange between Martins and Schmidt, alluding to Cotten’s character incorrigibly asking to speak with Schmidt despite the fact that she’s in the middle of performing a part in a stage play, before exclaiming to Samuels, “the whole point with the Valli character in that film is that she’d experienced a fatal love—and then along comes this silly American!” Schmidt, Reed seems to be saying, will indulge this man (which has as much to say about gender expectations as it does anti-American sentiment), but she is not going to be suckered by him.
This kind of playful and boisterous yet honest and biting commentary is Reed’s bread and butter in so much of The Third Man. The film remains his most cunning masterpiece – proof that Reed never really fit quite into Hollywood nor the European arthouse crowd, and that suited him just fine. He wasn’t the lecturer at the front of the room but rather the shadowy figure in the back clocking the motives of those around him. He showed that sometimes, in order to avoid being othered, you have to not let yourself be the main character. This, as much as anything else, is a brand of figurative advice I try to take with me to the classroom every day.
 Will Perkins, “The Third Man (1949),” The Art of the Title, April 30, 2013, https://www.artofthetitle.com/title/the-third-man/
 “Third Man tops British film chart,” BBC, September 23, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/454744.stm
 Graham Greene, “‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film,” The New York Times, March 19, 1950, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/20/specials/greene-astory.html?scp=15&sq=Preface%2520to&st=cse
 Koraljka Suton, “Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’: How Orson Welles Stole a Show He Was Barely In,” Cinephilia & Beyond, Accessed February 6, 2022, https://cinephiliabeyond.org/the-third-man/
 Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, 1972, https://www.wellesnet.com/carol-reed-on-directing-orson-welles-in-the-third-man/
Edited by Michelle Baroody