THE THIRD MAN (1949, dir. Carol Reed)

(Source: Missed Prints/Nautilus Prints.)

In case you didn’t know, the banner image for this blog is a cropped screen capture of the final shot of The Third Man. So it’s only appropriate that I would write about the movie, and particularly that shot, one of these days. It’s doubly appropriate, too, as Rialto Pictures and Studio Canal have been distributing a newly restored version of the film to theaters across the U.S.

However, it’s daunting for me to write about the movie because– in addition to being one of the great screen classics– it presents a complex, tragic and what-I-consider-to-be accurate moral point-of-view that resonates all too well. This morality is encapsulated in one of the film’s “throwaway” moments: when the International Police come to take the love interest Anna (Alida Valli) away to a police station, a British MP says, “I’m sorry, Miss, it’s orders. We can’t go against the protocol.”

“I don’t even know what protocol means,” she replies.

“Neither do I, miss,” the BP answers.

In other words, no one is certain or absolutely correct about what the right thing to do is in this film, just like how most every thinking, feeling person is in real life. Despite the film’s tremendous chiaroscuro cinematography, here is no “black and white” here; there are just moral grey zones, and within a post World War II European city that is being operated by overlapping, transnational powers. The Third Man is an example of a classic made during the Golden Age of Hollywood that has a “simply complex” conclusion. The bad guy is vanquished, but did the good guy really win and prove his virtue?

Orson Welles. (Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal.)
Orson Welles. (Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal.)

An American writer of cheap Western novels, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to post-war Vienna upon the invitation of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles.) But upon arrival, he’s informed that Harry died after a car ran him down in the street. But Holly grows suspicious when he notices inconsistencies in the stories of Harry’s Vienna friends and English officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) informs him that Lime was a murderous operator in the city’s booming black market, and his biggest racket was selling stolen, diluted penicillin to hospitals.

Holly also meets Anna, Harry’s actress ex-girlfriend and, as the police find out, an illegal Czech immigrant who has been passing off as Viennese and alluding deportation with the help of a fake passport provided by Lime. To complicate matters, she still hopelessly loves Harry, and Holly has a thing for her although he recognizes that she’s still carrying a torch for his friend.

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten. (Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal.)
Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten. (Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal.)

**Spoilers** Holly eventually finds out that Harry faked his death and is still alive. He informs the police and– after confronting Harry and failing to get him to help Anna out of her predicament– he makes a bargain: if Anna gets safe passage out of Vienna, he will help the authorities at catching Lime. However, Anna finds out about this plan and refuses to leave, to which Holly changes his mind, but after Calloway shows him the deadly after-effects of Lime’s penicillin racket in a hospital’s children’s ward, Holly has a resigned crisis of conscience and decides to help the police for nothing in return.

The police stake out a café where Holly will meet Harry and, after Anna warns Harry, he runs away, into the local underground sewer system. The police and Holly follow him and, after he’s shot and trapped, Holly mercifully executes Harry. The movie ends with Lime’s funeral and, as you can seen in this blog’s banner image, the final shot is a wide-shot slash long-take of Holly waiting by the side of a leaf-ridden cemetery road as Anna walks down it, hoping that she’ll stop and give him some sort of clemency for his necessary betrayal. But she just walks by and doesn’t give him the satisfaction. Shown up and knowing it, he just takes out a cigarette, lights it, and throws away the match. The end.

It’s one of the perfect endings in cinema, evidence of Carol Reed’s confidence as a director by that point. It’s just a lock-off shot of someone walking by and ignoring another person, and it’s the perfect grace note for the story.

The moment is established in the beginning during a scene that shows the fake funeral for Harry: not yet knowing her, Holly sees Anna walk down the same road as Calloway drives him to a bar in a Jeep for questioning. This is formalistically ironic– the final moment is set-up a la’ how Harry is eventually set-up in the story. Moreover, it helps to underscore the immutable, predestined nature of the film’s coda—there’s no going back after Holly has executed Harry—which also reflects Anna’s fixed physicality and point-of-view. She’s not going to waver and let Holly off the hook in any way whatsoever. She’s just like fate.

By all traditional morals standards—as well as the screen standards of the film’s era—Holly did the right thing when he stopped and “punished” Harry. Yet, he also killed his friend and broke Anna’s heart. She will never forgive him, and this makes the film’s moral component less cut-and-dry. Holly followed protocol, but he, as well as the audience, doesn’t really know what that means.

The Third Man has often been classified as Film Noir and, as it often goes in the “genre”, the hero has to pay a heavy price for uncovering the facts and doing the proper thing. But here, it doesn’t feel conventional as much as it feels like a matter of emotional truth. Holly isn’t valorized or shown as someone who sacrificed, as the Noir hero often is; he’s a self-acknowledged patsy who got caught up in circumstances, did the best he could by making a trade-off, but gets the ultimate cold shoulder. He made a life-or-death compromise in a crumbling city full of life-or-death compromises, and would we the audience have done it any differently?

Simultaneously, Anton Karas’s zither score plays an affettuoso cue with much tremolo over the scene, giving it a wistful, bittersweet quality. This makes the movie’s final moment free of judgment and cosmically humorous, as if the filmmakers are shrugging and asking something that Anna asks earlier in the movie: “what difference does it make?”

Cotten. (Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal.)
Cotten. (Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal.)

The rich humanity of The Third Man as well as its disavowal of Manichean resolution is why the film endures and is re-watched after its central mystery is made known to the viewer. Almost 70 years old, this film is an honest, exquisite let down, which life can often be. But this let-down can also be beautiful and ethereal, just like leaves falling from trees that line a long, Viennese cemetery road.

Or, as my partner once said after we finished watching The Third Man together, “ah– it hurts so good.”