I’m not sure there’s much that I can say about the 1949 film The Third Man which isn’t already on the Internet somewhere. It’s simply a stone-cold classic, one of the definitive film noir creations. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because there are few writers out there who can capture how good it is.
Pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna at the request of his friend Harry Lime, only to find out that Lime is dead, hit by a car while crossing the street. Martins comes to believe that the death was not, in fact, an accident; there were two witnesses to the crime, but it turns out that the titular third man may have been at the scene. Thus Holly Martins joins that venerable club of movie heroes, the reluctant detective.
If you can’t guess that after finding some clues, he’ll discover things aren’t quite what they seem, then you haven’t seen too many detective movies. One film which owes its entire existence to this one is Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which has to play all sorts of games with time and plot to disguise the fact that it’s basically a remake of The Third Man. In both films, our hero eventually discovers that the people who seemed to be his aides and enemies during the investigation may be something else entirely. In both films, the hero learns that the “other man” involved with the crime is much closer to him than he ever could have imagined.
Holly Martins turns out to be one of my favorite types of hero: one who thinks (possibly under the influence of popular culture) that heroism should be easy. A good example is Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, who approaches everything in Iraq as though he’s the star if his own personal war movie. Like him, Martins is far from home and he doesn’t speak the language, but he swaggers around like he’s lived there his whole life. He refuses to change his mind despite advice from people who ought to know better, such as the police or Lime’s girlfriend (Alida Valli, billed simply as “Valli”). And as in The Hurt Locker, the ultimate confrontation with the truth will shatter his belief that it can be solved as easily as in one of his stories.
Detective films were not new even by the time The Third Man was made. Bogart had done The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon already, and there were plenty of smaller films. The difference here is the powerful moral dilemma at the core of the movie. Without spoiling anything, Martins will find himself caught between trying to do the right thing for his friends, and serving the greater good. Bogart never had that problem; the audience could always be secure in the knowledge that whatever he was doing was an inherently good thing, and whoever stood in his way was the bad guy.
The Third Man looks ahead to films like Chinatown or Night Moves, where it’s possible to get to the truth but not necessarily to understand it – even when it’s coming from someone that you thought you knew. That message is even reflected in the cinematography; each scene starts with a standard establishing shot, but devolves into a series of skewed camera angles. Not only does this fit the odd nature of the crime – every witness seems to have seen something different – but it prepares us for the revelations that come later, after which Martins will realize that his worldview is askew with the people he thought he knew.
Another modern film that I think owes a deep debt to The Third Man is the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, which sets itself up as a conventional thriller and then changes completely in its third act. The Third Man doesn’t make so sharp a turn, but it does have a climax which one might describe as “crowd-pleasing,” followed by a melancholy conclusion. Screenwriter Graham Greene had outlined the film’s story in a novella, but his happier ending got scrapped; director Carol Reed wanted Martins to suffer the consequences of his victory.
The implication is the same as in the Coens’ film: we make our choices in life, and we might even be doing the right thing, but there are consequences nonetheless. You can’t make a difficult decision without paying a price.
Reviewed by Mark Young