Watching The Third Man for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of déjà vu. Anyone who has ever read anything about film noir is going to recognize Orson Welles’ first dramatic appearance, the scene of the Ferris wheel, the chase sequence through the sewers, the line about the cuckoo clock, and the beautifully odd zither score. Often, that kind of familiarity makes actually watching the film in question anticlimactic, but that wasn’t the case for me with The Third Man.
As the movie opens, American pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-war Vienna to meet his friend Harry Lime, only to discover that Lime’s funeral is being held that day. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Lime’s demise prompt Martins to investigate, plunging recklessly into the city’s underworld with some help from Lime’s Czech lover, Anna (Alida Valli).
Martins and Lime embody two contrasting stereotypes of Americans. Martins represents the well-intentioned but culturally ignorant American, sometimes creating more problems in an misguided attempt to solve that which he does not understand. Lime is an even darker character, a charismatic but sociopathic capitalist willing to trample anyone in a quest to make a buck. The movie isn’t anti-American exactly. With one notable exception, no one, no nationality, comes across particularly well in The Third Man’s seedy tale, and Martins, the protagonist, grows considerably over the course of the film. Tellingly, though, it is the British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who stands out as the moral paragon of the film. It is he who impresses upon Martins the terrible consequences of Lime’s callous profiteering. Like Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American, also written by the British Graham Greene, Calloway is much wiser than his younger, over-reaching counterpoint from the colonies.
But though Martins is the movie’s protagonist and Calloway its moral center, Lime gives the movie its spark. Our first glimpse of Lime, as played by Orson Welles, is iconic for a reason. We see a cat curling around a man’s feet in a doorway, and then a light comes on, illuminating Lime’s careless smirk. A car passes, the light goes out, and Lime is gone, as if by magic. We the audience feel as dazzled and disoriented as Martins does. That scene also exemplifies the movie’s remarkable cinematography, its expressionistic use of light and shadows and its dramatic camera angles. As directed by Carol Reed, the Vienna underworld is literally off-kilter.
The Third Man still feels bitingly contemporary. Its critique of the overstepping American is all too fresh, and its refusal to indulge in sentimentality, particularly toward the end, is refreshing. Indeed, the ending of The Third Man is practically perfect: a long shot in which a woman coldly brushes past the man who is waiting for her. It doesn’t force a fairy tale ending, but it’s not completely bleak either. After all, the man was fairly certain she wasn’t going to stop, and he waited anyway. Despite everything, he remains doggedly optimistic, and the world is better off for it.