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The Third Man as an Indictment of the American Condition


During the end of the twentieth century, the British Film Institute conducted a survey of a thousand experts to determine which British films produced over the last hundred years were the absolute greatest. Atop the conclusive list of a hundred films was Carol Reed’s noir thriller The Third Man (1949). Set in occupied Vienna after the Second World War, this subversive genre classic is widely extolled for its cinematography, if not for the story it tells. For while there remains slight critical consensus around the film’s implicit and symptomatic meanings, formalist approaches consistently yield praise for the film’s technical triumphs.

Subversive in its self awareness, and in its iconic score by Anton Karas, The Third Man is just the same a quintessential film of the noir genre due to its striking interpretations of German expressionism. Coldly opulent interiors and baroque exteriors jutting out of glistening black streets at acute angles offer provocative settings for drastic deployments of shadows and high contrast lighting. It is a coherent work of black and white moving image arts that is defined by its reliance on geometrics and framing, severe vanishing points, and blatant attempts at inducing delirium through canted angles. Not only is there a sinister beauty that can be found in every frame of this borderline trümmerfilm, there is an accessible intent that is nonetheless maddening. Even the film’s angular, disjointed composition of city scapes foster the perspective of a confused outsider staggering through a foreign place that has been contentiously fractured through its post war occupation.

In typical noir style, The Third Man establishes an unsettling atmosphere through the refined, aforementioned techniques borne of German expressionism, offering viewers a first person perspective into the paranoia and manic confusion that drives the film’s protagonist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). Martins, an unprosperous American novelist of déclassé western thrillers, travels to Austria after being offered a job by an old friend and crafty expatriate living in Vienna. Upon arriving, however, Martins finds that his friend, Harry Lime, who is portrayed by the hypnotic Orson Welles in no more than ten minutes of screen time, has suddenly and mysteriously died.

The film then follows Martins as he arrogantly blunders around the occupied zones of post war Vienna, searching for an elusive third witness and possible participant in the death of his old friend Harry Lime. The titular character in The Third Man, it should come as no surprise seventy years later, is Lime himself, an unscrupulous gang leader who fabricated his own death in order to evade the prosecution of some truly heinous crimes. The film, in due course, explores themes of unrequited love, the allures and consequences of evil, and the cultural and ideological juxtapositions of the United States and Europe. In its exploration of these themes, and at it’s core, The Third Man remains a relevant indictment of not only American imperialism and capitalism, but of the ignorance of the country’s citizenry as well.

While the cinematographic and generic achievements of the film are touted near universally, the film’s meaning is not as ubiquitously accepted among critics and viewers. In 1950, the infamous Bosley Crowther wrote in his review for the New York Times, “ … the simple fact is that ‘The Third Man,’ for all the awesome hoopla it has received, is essentially a first-rate contrivance in the way of melodrama - and that’s all… It doesn’t present any ‘message.’ It hasn’t a point of view. It is just a bang-up melodrama, designed to excite and entertain.” Fifty years later, Roger Ebert would conversely opine that he considered the film “… weary and knowing… ”, and that “ … its glorious style was an act of defiance against the corrupt world it pictured.”

For generations, the film’s deeper meanings have largely been reconstructed through critical analyses that have explored external evidence. Critics often cite the decisive influence of screenwriter Graham Greene, whose catholic conceptions of good, evil, and temptation, for example, were evinced throughout the film in various ways. The role Orson Wells played in further shaping the film’s political agenda is another component often cited in critical interpretations of the film’s grander meaning. These attempts to externally contextualize The Third Man are not unreasonable, especially for a film so conspicuously laden with the sociopolitical commentary of known socialists. And yet, in much of the same way that the film is an arresting work of visual art that can speak for itself, the film’s meaning is tangible upon or after its initial screening.

Viewers are forced to empathize with Holly Martins by having his deranged perspective thrust upon them. We experience the mystery of The Third Man through the lens of this hapless alcoholic, floundering in a world to which he does not belong. We inherit the experiences of Holly Martins and, as such, we are forced to confront our own ignorance abroad, particularly as Americans. Martins earns the contempt that awaits him in Vienna, his introductory scene being one wherein his gaze never deigns to meet that of a customs officer. He goes on to eschew names and concepts that are foreign to him, perhaps a condition of his unruly self centeredness if not his cerebral simplicity.

Martins’ aggressive alienation is emphasized for viewers in the spoken language to which we are not privy, the constant trill of Anton Karas’ disquieting zither, and the chiaroscuros that sever Martins from his surroundings. Taking a closer look at Martins’ interaction with other characters, it is clear that nobody in the film respects him, least of all himself. He is demonstrably infantile, stubborn, and quick to anger by way of avertable bewilderment. Worst of all, Martins is a pernicious caricature of the best America has to offer. For while he is predominantly defined by his worst traits, he is also the sum of his parts, curious and unassuming, with a zealous, fraternal loyalty and a quick indignation that could only be further described as self righteous.

The other American in the film, then, is less the embodiment of flailing ignorance, and more that of competent depravity. The self centeredness of Harry Lime is not a symptom of his simplicity, but rather a feature of his character. Lime is a shark; a ruthless opportunist with a conscious disregard for others. Cloaked in shadows and bound to a subterranean life of crime, Lime is the ideal capitalist. Above all else, he values power and money, despite the harm his endeavors have caused others and even himself.

“Victims?”, Lime sermonizes whilst literally looking down on the people of his host country, “Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” While Holly Martins may be the American everyman, impulsive and raucous and disrespectful, he is, at most, a cultural representation of individuals. Lime, on the other hand, our charismatic antihero, is the product of unadulterated capitalism, and represents the United States’ devastating economic policies as a whole.

There is a timely relevance to the character of Harry Lime that can be observed in the United States’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Lime unabashedly delineates the psychopathic calculous of capitalism in the film, along with the imperialism it inevitably justifies. He calls attention to obvious quandaries of morality over which the U.S. government continues to gaslight its citizenry. Contemporary Americans, perhaps now more than ever, are faced with the intimidating realities Lime brings to the film’s fore.

To what ends will we accept our manufactured consent? To what ends will the debilitating poverty and suffering that are necessitated by capitalism be justified? How many more “dots” must we sacrifice to the so called free market in order to appease our oligarchs? Since the onslaught of a lethal virus was exacerbated by the U.S. government’s commitment to capital over people, a narrative promulgated by political actors and the mainstream commentariat has shifted the national conversation even further from the substantive policy changes that are desperately needed toward superficial reassurances of rhetorical freedoms and the resiliency of the American worker. Where Donald Trump commended the “warriors” who unnecessarily lost their lives to coronavirus in order to serve the wealthy, Harry Lime might have acknowledged these same essential workers for what they are: suckers and mugs.

American laborers have been lauded for their heroism throughout the pandemic by corporations and government officials, while nothing of consequence is being done to acknowledge their suffering. Corporations purchase billboards to put their gratitude on display for the world, but refuse to concede hazard pay that would, for once, provide their employees with a livable wage during an unprecedented time of sickness and tumult. What’s more, actors of the federal government, through political machinations, continue to renege on promises regarding universal survival income, student loan debt relief, raising the minimum wage, and pursuing single payer health care options.

Again, at its core, The Third Man is an unforgiving indictment of the American condition on every level. It affronts viewers with the most noxious elements of their culture and consent in ways that are perceivable not only through considerations of the film’s external influences, but through the artistry of the film itself. This is to say that the themes of the movie are just as easily corroborated through the stylistic emphases of German expressionism as they are through contexts that extend beyond the film. Moreover, an attentiveness to geometry and the severity of angles and contrast lighting throughout the film have undoubtedly made Carol Reed’s unnerving 1949 noir thriller a staple of the genre.

Through its conscientiousness and impressive explorations of technique, The Third Man has well earned its status among experts as one of the greatest British films ever made. It may even be reasonable to suppose that if the British Film Institute were to revisit its ranking of the greatest movies made over the past century, The Third Man would remain atop the list for its remarkable composition alone. That said, the film also carries with it an unfortunate contemporary relevance, the likes of which even the filmmakers could not have foreseen. Perhaps with any luck, then, this classic of British cinema and film noir will endure the next seventy years as an exemplar of superb cinematography, and not as a mirror to society.