FILMED ON LOCATION in bomb-stricken Vienna, directed and written by Englishmen, counting a Brit and an Italian in its top billing, and heavy on untranslated German dialogue, ‘The Third Man’ is sometimes called the best of “foreign” noir, though it is still quite American at heart. The critical cues are clear enough from the outset: virtually every scene draped in shadows, characters swarming through perpetual night, macabre humor, a missing dead man, a dame, and a dependable chum at the center to tell us how it all goes down. But unlike most noir films, ‘The Third Man’ doesn’t leave us with the satisfaction of a case closed, a mystery unveiled, or even the schadenfreude of a private eye’s serial romances. There is at least some sense of destiny in that. ‘The Third Man’, to borrow again from the German, is more about weltschmertz—a deeply rooted disquiet with the world that is never resolved, either within its characters or the reflections they cast on the rest of us.
Having lately seen Von Trier’s ‘Europa’, it’s difficult not to compare it to Carol Reed’s earlier picture: a well-meaning American of limited means arrives in post-war Germanic territories only to find that the country and its people are not so accommodating as he’d hoped, and his job offer turns south of the law. Our straight man’s loyalties are torn between increasingly dubious personal friendships and stolidly moralistic Anglo peacekeepers. An emotionally distant woman (Valli, as Anna Schmidt) steals his heart, and does not keep it well. A ruthless individualism emerges, almost evocative of Ayn Rand, before a cold conclusion that turns our impressions inside out and leaves them messily strewn. The two films are dramatically different in how that ending is reached, naturally, but that is the difference made in 50 years of cinema storytelling. Even without Von Trier’s nihilistic touch, ‘The Third Man’ is unusually calculating and unsympathetic. Some efforts were made to cheer it up for American audiences, first among them the good ol’ boy introduction by protagonist Joseph Cotton replacing Reed’s more arch and amoral riff as a Viennese black market man with a story to tell. The entire narration takes less than a minute, but it opens the film and provides the context for the remaining 100 minutes, preparing us for a film of abrasively dry wit and the deadpan absurdity common in the aftermath of war. And at the heart of this hard knot is the mysteriously dead Harry Lime (Orson Welles).
Welles, per usual for this point is his career, is heinous and utterly at east with himself. Though Cotton leads the picture as Holly Martins, it is Welles whom many came to see, and who lives up to an hour’s worth of pursuit. When he does finally arrive, preening in his mad schemes and unscrupulous rackets, his near-soliloquy paints the world in a thankless and doltish light—what kind of fool would he be not to take advantage of the fools all around him? His is a grandiloquent, even depraved line of reasoning more familiar to Bond villains than noir bandits, and this is ‘The Third Man’s central struggle. On the one hand, only such a scheme as Lime’s would legitimate this tortuous web of intrigue and the eager pursuit of Interpol; on the other, if he really is so callous, how could two such decent people as Holly and Anna come to love him? This duplicity is never resolved and dulls the film’s magnificence a little. As everyone asks Martins, why doesn’t he just give up and go home? Does he simply have nothing better to do? Is he just a loner with a deathwish, like one of his Western black hats? His tête-à-tête with Anna reveals a lonely and aimless man who fell into his profession and could just as easily fall out of it if the money were good. He is passionless, frankly not too memorable, and only his closing moments with Lime, who utters not a word, prove that he’s doing more than just killing time on the Queen’s dole. But even this is hardly a victory for him or much a sense of closure for us. Just the end. Were it not for the weirdly coy zither music bed, ‘The Third Man’ would be frightfully dour indeed as an increasingly paranoid and incomprehensible world (at least, that is, to those who don’t understand German) closes in around us.
Altogether, the remaining body of the film is able to overcome its pitfalls of character construction through the sheer strength of its supporting parts. For one, the imagery of Robert Krasker is extraordinary in its depth, enough to induce agora- and claustrophobia alternately from scene to scene. Reed’s grasp of character interactions is natural and kinetic, as evinced during the iconic chase scene at the end. And of course, dialogue as “you were born to be murdered” deserves a spot alongside anything from ‘Double Indeminty’. At the last, Reed was wise not to give audiences an easy and disingenuously happy ending between Holly and Anna, despite their frequent flirting. It is the only ending that feels truthful for such a pessimistic tale. But if the two must mourn in defeated solitude, Harry Lime at least should have been worth it.