The Third Man: A Beautifully Twisted Emblem of Everything That Is Noir

Film Noir is notorious for its morally ambiguous protagonists, characters that not only accept cynicism as a chief trait but embrace it wholly. It is their entire existence, their meaning, and their raison d'être. It is them. That character in The Third Man is introduced just as the film opens. Filmmaker Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker take us through its streets, its sleazy cafes, its low reputed nightclubs, and its ruins. That individual here is the city of Vienna itself, a setting-character with a morality as ambiguous as that of famous noir icons such as Sam Spade or Walter Neff, and a dark mysterious aura that brings it to life and gives it a real sense of danger. The Vienna of Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece is battered and exhausted, in its moonlit streets reside the scum of society and what remains of the law is too scattered to protect the other half of its population. This post-war Vienna does not provide warmth and hospitality even to its inhabitants, let alone mere strangers; but nonetheless, pulp author Holly Martins does enter it, and his laws and hers must clash.

Washed-up pulp author Holly Martins gets a job offer from his old friend Harry Lime in Vienna, but upon his arrival, he discovers that his old pal had just died in an accident. As the cops provide a certain story and the neighbors another, Martins’ suspicions rise, and he decides to play detective and try and get to the bottom of the story. “Death is at the bottom of everything Martins. Leave death to the professionals.” What starts as a quest for truth to honor a friend’s memory soon becomes a mind-boggling mystery that revolves around a mysterious “third man” and ends with a revelation that redefines truth and toys with complex concepts of morality and ethics.

Graham Greene, before setting out to write the script, wrote a short novella that for him defined the atmosphere of the film and the overall mood of the story. Next, he visited the city and through the help of a friend, explored its depths and discovered its black-market. The main difference between the film and the novella, which was published later, is the ending. Whereas the film’s ending scene denounces any potential romantic notions the viewer might have, the book ends with a slightly more hopeful note that insinuates the possibility of a love affair blossoming between Martins and Anna.
What makes The Third Man such a powerful and iconic film noir is a combination of perfect executions of every element the genre is known for. If I were to choose a favorite element from the film, I would have a very hard time picking between its almost poetic dialogue, its gorgeous cinematography and its lively score.

The writing of the film is some of the best the genre has to offer. It has the long reflective monologues the fans of noir love, the “cheesy” memorable one-liners, hints at what lies at the end of the mystery and thorough explorations of the themes it dabbles in. Orson Welles’s character beautifully expresses his morally ambiguous philosophies through a handful of memorable lines and analogies. The film as a whole tries to define Welles’ character in a way, every conversation is a debate about what he proudly is. “He never grew up. The world just grew up around him.”

The cinematography of The Third Man is a beautiful and atmospheric exploration of the ruins of post-war Vienna. It is potently expressive and often very poetic. The city is captured as a hostile environment with a secret around each corner. The characters and the emotions they feel in the midst of all the madness are conveyed through a picture-perfect lens. Close-ups, Dutch tilts and establishing shots are used throughout the film and only add up to the overall mystery and danger of the whole film.

Instead of opting for the smooth minor jazz the genre usually utilizes, The Third Man went with a score of what can only be called gypsy jazz. The soundtrack features only one instrument and that is the zither. The end result is at times a soothing melody with prophecies of upcoming turbulence, and at others a lively exciting ballad that stirs the nerves and keeps them on edge.

The Third Man is essentially an exploration of an expression we often hear but never contemplate, “kill or be killed.” Its mysterious third man takes advantage of the city’s hectic state and puts a major portion of its population in danger for personal benefit. He compares his victims to dots seen from the sky. Irrelevant, insignificant and inconsequential. The film does not attempt to correct him, it only punishes him. At the end of the whole ordeal, he does not repent, he does not change morally, but he is prey instead of predator. As his fingers reach for the hope of rescue and a twisted idea of light, justice brings him back down. Justice here is entirely one single character’s perspective, others have different notions of it, and the film has none.

The Third Man is a film noir like none other. It has everything that makes the genre beloved by so many, but it also has a certain depth that is often lacking in a genre that is jam-packed with b-movies. Amazing dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and a memorable score make this film a must-watch for every cinema fan.


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