THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 25: THE THIRD MAN

by Daniel Suddes

The Third Man (1949)  Directed By: Carol Reed  Produced by:  Reed, Hugh Perceval, David O. Selznick, and Alexander Korda. Written by:  Graham Greene, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, and Alexander Korda. Starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, and Trevor Howard. Oscar Count: 1 (Best Cinematography, nominated for Best Director and Best Film Editing).

The true reality of the world immediately following World War II has been largely forgotten. Most historians, if they discuss this time period at all, focus on the Cold War and the two superpowers, ignoring the ravaged Europe altogether. That is one reason The Third Man is important. It almost seems like a documentary of that time period, showing a Europe that was still coming to terms with the violence and destruction it had witnessed. It seemed as though the world was already moving on, forgetting about the people who were still living in dilapidated cities across the continent, and beyond.

But The Third Man may also be the most perfectly constructed noir of all time. Certainly, each portion of the film (from the ingenious score to the masterful performances by Welles and Cotten) complements the other in a way that resembles a jigsaw puzzle more than a film. In many ways, the pieces of the film resemble the pieces of Vienna that are shown throughout the film. It is beauty that was being obscured by immorality and destruction. There are moments that, by themselves, are wondrous to behold. The famous score is one example – it became very popular amongst the record buying public. But in the film, the score is foreboding and often takes on a much different air.  It feels hopelessly displaced and chaotic…much like the city of Vienna itself. In addition, every one of the characters in the film manages to feel important and like a part of the plot. There is not a wasted line of dialogue. All of this is excellent as construction, and would propel The Third Man to classic status. But the film uses this as a launching pad for a deep allegory that tries to explain why society tolerated evil for so long.

Look at me, going on and on about the film without discussing what it is really about. The first act is can be explained easily. Of course, so could the pall that hung over Europe before World War II. An author named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who can only write B-grade westerns that were sold in dime drugstores at the time, is invited to come to Vienna for a job offered to him by his friend Harry Lime. But when Martins arrives, Lime has apparently been killed in a hit and run. But is it as straightforward? The British military accuse Lime of operating on the black market, and several witnesses seem to recall seeing a third man at the scene of the accident while the official report only accounts for two. Who was this man and what happened to Lime? Martins wants to find out, and almost becomes the sort of character in his works. At first, he is happy to play the vigilante, standing up to authority and attempting to help his friend any way he can.

Of course, like the situation in Europe preceding the making of the film, the plot becomes far more complex than that and requires Martins to make decisions that he felt were impossible to make before he came. This is, naturally, what happened as the specter of Nazism crept across the continent. At first, it was easy to stand up to people like Churchill and claim criminals like Hitler were being bullied by authorities for no reason. Of course, it is easy now to see how wrong those people were and how they ignored a clear danger. But at the time, the most popular opinion (and the one that Martins subscribed to) was one of ignorance and denial. Even when they changed their minds, they were not rewarded (Martins with the denial of love, Europe by becoming involved in a destructive war).  There could not be any happy endings in this situation, which is why the seemingly depressing ending is actually perfect.

Even today, that morality is not clear cut. Europe carried many scars from World War II during the twentieth century, and still does. Maybe that is why The Third Manonly seems more relevant as time passes. There were always be Limes in the world, and there will always be people like Martins who ignore what is right under their nose, even if they believe they know the limits of what society can do to itself.

The best scene in the film, and the one that will be remembered for all time, is the scene on the Ferris wheel. Most can quote the end of the scene, in which Harry Lime recites his reasons for why a peaceful society is not necessarily the most beneficial (“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock”) and is said in the tone of a man who has long ago won the war against himself. This is perhaps the most that audiences ever get to see Lime and understand him. It is easy to see why people were seduced by his speeches and became capable of doing evil. Indeed, at the time the film was made, such a speech would have resonated with many people. After all, much of Europe had been seduced into one of the most evil regimes known to history. It didn’t start that way. It started with men like Lime, who were able to justify what they were doing based on some haphazard thoughts about history. By the time people were trying to reanalyze their motivations (like Lime seems to, briefly, in this scene…note his facial expression when Martins discusses the police digging up Lime’s grave. He’s obviously thought about those things before) it was too late. This conversation turns into a great moment of horror, because we know what Lime’s line of thinking caused.

 Did You Know: The police officers in the film were not actors. The Vienna Police Department has a unit whose sole job is to patrol the sewers, as it is an ideal place for criminals to hide. All of the officers in the film were members of that unit who were off duty during filming.

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