Before I start my contribution to the analysis of the film The Third Man I thought it might be nice to start with a less judgmental response to watching the film. Despite my age of 47 this is the very first time I have watched what some classify as a cinema masterpiece, so I think it’s important to just let the film wash over me first without absorbing it too intensely.
First of all I am happy to report that I enjoyed it. Though, ironically I thought I would enjoy it principally because it starred Orson Welles, whom I am a big fan of – so it was something of a surprised to discover that a film that he is so closely linked to did not feature his obvious presence until quite far in to the story. However, if one thinks about it this is actually very Orson Welles!
I loved the photography – perhaps I should say cinematography but I could not help feeling that under the directorship of Carol Reed the film was a series of set vignettes designed to play off the forbidding presence of post-war Vienna. It did feel very theatrical (but in a pleasant way.)
I guess there were no real surprises when the big plot reveal came, because of the knowledge that Orson Welles starred, and until the reveal you had not yet seen him! But, in a far more existential point of view, one does tend to apply a lot of meaning to incidents, actions and motives in this film primarily on the weight of the Greene/Welles creative involvement.
It’s rather like a bank note – in essence a bank note is just a piece of paper, but because it has our government’s name applied to it it becomes something of greater value.
There were some hokey moments – and in this one might devalue certain characterisations as being caricatures, but even these caricatures are interesting. Take the Baron and Dr. Winkle, the Baron is particularly corny in the way he comes across, but very interestingly in the scene where we see him and Dr. Winkle together on the balcony - when Holly asks them to pass a message to Harry - one perceives a whole new aspect to these characters and their relationship that does seem very innovative for the time!
If one wants to be a little unkind then one could say that the whole film fed a little too much off the character of post-war Vienna and without this back-drop the film wouldn’t have been anything more than a mediocre thriller. But, from the context of what I am about to discuss, if one sees Vienna not as a back-drop but as a player in the narrative one can get so much more out of the dynamics which play back and forth from all the cast. But I will say more about that later!
As usual a big thank you to Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards for a excellent podcast! (And likewise a equally big thank you to the Back Alley Noir team for puting up with my waffle!)
The Third Man Discussion – comments and responses –
(Please bear in mind I might paraphrase somewhat as my transcription skills are not fantastic, so if I miss-quote Richard or Shannon at least I hope that I am close to the mark.)
Let me start with Shannon’s opening contention as to why he thinks The Third Man is NOT Film Noir:
Shannon: Stylistically I think it is Film Noir...But as a story I don’t think it’s Noir at all. I think it deals with absolutes; it deals in black and white. I don’t think it’s accidental that the main character, Holly Martin...is a writer of Westerns. Clearly Westerns have a very black and white sense of justice and ultimately that’s what this film has...
Once one get’s over the obvious pun (or is it a metaphor) regarding The Third Man dealing with ‘black and whites’ I do start to wonder if this is a film of such clear delineations as Shannon makes out.
My contention is that this film can be read on two levels – those levels pertaining to the two integral operators of the storyline, initially Grahame Green as author followed by Carol Reed as director. I think that despite Carol Reed’s best efforts to make The Third Man as a simple and mainstream mimic of the Film Noir style Greene’s intent is always lurking in the shadows.
Yes, you can read – as Shannon has done – that The Third Man is superficially black and white, but if you look between the black and white there are subtle hints of grey, despite Carol Reeds best efforts to hide them. And these shades of grey are all down to Grahame Greene’s wonderful writing and are certainly very much in keeping with the Noir manifesto.
For example, I do agree with Shannon that it is important that Greene wrote the character of Holly Martin as a author of Cowboy stories, I simply interpret the reason he did this in a different way.
For me, it is a crucial aspect of The Third Man that Holly Martins is a writer of pulp Western fiction (of which he is cited as being the author of stayed titles as ‘The Oklahoma Kid’ and ‘The Lone Rider of Santa Fe’). This perhaps re-enforces the character’s innocent outlook and inability to really comprehend the complex and multi-layered dynamics – or reality – of a post-war Europe, and a world that was on the brink of the Cold War.
In my previous commentary on ‘Double Indemnity’ I pondered the differences between the morality tales of American Western movies as compared to those of Film Noir. I concluded that pre-war westerns generally took a far simpler and stereotyped view of morals and had characterization that might be said to be somewhat two dimensional.
Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) is cast as the innocent abroad, dropped into the murky post-war Vienna where no-one is who they seem to be and everyone knows more than they are saying. Characters in The Third Man are far more realistically portrayed as being multi-faceted, both in terms of morals and motivation than they would have been in a Hollywood Western.
In fact it’s rather interesting to ponder the meaning of the title, The Third Man. Obviously it primarily refers to a key plot device – where Martins is on the trail of the mysterious ‘third man’ – but it is also perhaps a subliminal reference to the ambiguous true nature of the third man (if one concludes there are three principal male leads; Holly Martins, the Harry Lime Holly knew before 1939 and the new Harry Limes that Holly discovers in 1949).
Poor old Holly Martins is destined to learn the hard way about the realities and truths of the aftermath of the Second World War. In a literal sense Martins is fated – in fact he actually walks under a ladder in an early scene!
Grahame Greene – a hard bitten (as opposed to hard boiled) British author – seems to have chosen Martins as a template for the naive and idealised (pre-war) American outlook on world affairs. In this, it is then interesting to contemplate that Holly Martin last met with the chief protagonist – Harry Limes (played by Orson Welles) – in 1939 and that in the film his early struggle is to resolve the Harry Limes he knew before the war with the character that he is now learning about in the Vienna of 1949.
In this context Harry Limes seems to be a metaphor for the emerging awareness of the American public to the ‘ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world’ (to quote Wikipedia’s entry on Grahame Greene).
Shannon: The protagonists are too cut and dried, there is no Femme fatale, and there is no sense that desire has anything to do with the downfall of an individual
Cause and effect, or to put it another way karma; to my mind Film Noir, as I am slowly beginning to perceive, is all about the consequences of human actions. One of the important early Noir issues that the first two episodes of OotP podcast deal with - by means of the films Out of the Past and Double Indemnity - were the idea that one’s past catches up with one. BUT – and here is the real Noir flavour to this moral notion – that the catalyst to the main protagonists getting their comeuppance is some sort of moral downfall or turnaround.
First of all Shannon seems to think that the central protagonists do not have enough of a past in the movie to warrant a key change in their circumstances to effect this plot changing event. They seem to be pretty linear in their journey from A to B. But I think Shannon misses a key plot device that precipitates the change in all of the characters in the Third Man. The Second World War.
Admittedly in most Noir the device which instigates the change in a character is an act that they bring about themselves, usually motivated by desire (in Double Indemnity, for example, Walter Neff decides to defraud his insurance company at the behest of Phyllis Dietrichson seduction). But this is simply to relegate the Second World War to an historical fact, and not a dynamic that acted upon individuals to motivate character changes.
Likewise the idea that there is no Femme fatale in the movie is similarly based on what I think may be – with the greatest respect to Shannon – a very two dimensional idea about what a Femme fatale is and how they work.
While Anna is not so much you’re run of the mill Black Widow seductress she does seduce Martins in the most subtle of ways, and in any case the result is the same, in common with the Film Noir code, that Martins fails to achieve the object of his desire. What is perhaps confusing here is that a person can be seductive without actively attempting to seduce.
This leads us to the final of Shannon’s three statements – that there is no desire behind the downfall of an individual in The Third Man. I disagree.
Holly Martin’s desire for Anna led him to an uncharacteristically self-serving betrayal of his long time friend Harry Limes. Anna’s desire to stay in the Western controlled zone of Vienna, and thus with Harry, led her to break the law by procuring false documents. And Harry’s desire may have been base monetary gratification but you do have to ask why – when things were clearly going wrong for him – did he not make his escape from Vienna? It seems to me that Harry was drawn to Anna albeit subconsciously and against his protestations of her meaning to him.
Shannon: [In pondering the superficial visual qualities that perhaps make The Third Man look Noir] ...None the less these become almost stereotyped in the context of a story that has become too black and white. The classic portrayal of this is when towards the end we finally see the character of Harry Lime...one man turned to evil can cast a very long shadow...
Ostensibly the big reveal, this sequence does reveal several truths – like, for example, Shannon’s contention that Harry is just a very evil man. But, again, I do not think it is as simple or black and white as that (sorry!)...
I say there are several truths revealed in this scene and I think it is perhaps the most quintessentially Noir scene of the film. It is the turning point in the plot and is an exquisitely staged moment where the figure of Harry Limes is brought into the light in what can be amusingly described as a very real light bulb going on moment!
The switch is flicked on not only in terms of the plot reveal but also in that Martins finally sees the truth that has thus far been hidden to him – he sees the real Harry Limes. But furthermore it is because of this sudden realisation about what Harry is and consequently the truth of what Harry has done that is the downfall of Holly Martins. From the two-dimensional caricature we meet at the beginning of the movie, with his simplistic ideals, suddenly Holly starts to look at things with a new sense of realism, and this is the catalyst that results in him betraying a friend.
Harry Limes steps out of the dark, a man who clouded the minds of those who thought they knew him. BUT from Shannon’s point of view – in the case of Harry Lines – wasn’t he always on this route to self-destruction?
In Film Noir I have so far concluded that a key issue is the moral downfall of a leading character and this is precipitated by some fundamental schism. Desire, as mentioned before, usually plays a significant part in this tear in the moral fabric of the main character, but I think - from Grahame Greene’s point of view- Harry Lime was the victim of a force that he was unable to defend himself from. This force affected a change in him which manifested in different sorts of desires.
The Harry Lime of 1949 was a product of the Second World War and all its horrendous and hideous realities – and in a way Harry can be seen as the alter ego of Holly, for if Holly – at the beginning of the film – represented the naive idealistic pre-war American then Harry seems to be cast as the war-tarnished and cynical product of a world war that showed the worst in humanity.
Having addressed some of the podcast’s commentary directly I would just quickly like to discuss to other aspects of The Third Man that I think are very Noir (thus arguing against Shannon’s contention that The Third Man isn’t Film Noir).
One interesting thing I believe is true of Film Noir is the writers’ convention of assigning human characteristic to locations. For example, I *think* Shannon himself described Los Angeles as the very epitome of a Film Noir city and that this city was an integral player in some of the great Noir narratives.
The City – for sometimes it is an eponymous place not Los Angeles – is ascribed a sole that effects changes and motivates the actions of the human characters in Noir storylines.
In The Third Man one has to perceive Vienna of 1949 as a living and breathing player in Graham Greene’s story, it exerts so much physiological motivation and presence in the film. With its help Harry Limes evades capture – for most of the film anyway – and by means of its brooding malevolence it incubates Harry’s developing evil nature until he commits his final atrocity.
While fans of Noir will be quite comfortable with my interpretation of this piece of anthropomorphism I do want to push this sort of personification a little further – as hinted at in my comments.
Shannon’s primary misgivings about the film are that it generally seems to be bereft of any clear Femme fatale or desire that acts as a sponsor to the protagonists actions. While I did argue that Anna is, to my mind, a type of Femme fatal I do allude to another character in the film that I feel is more of a sponsor to Holly and Harry’s downfall than any other human figure – the Second World War.
Now obviously I am perhaps labouring this point, but I really do feel that in the context of Film Noir and understanding it one really does have to acquiesce to the importance that the war played in the fundamental shift in the moral outlook of the Western public.
For me the Second World War is just as much a covert protagonist in Noir, and particularly The Third Man, as one might perceive a city to be a living breathing actor.
The war seduced men, and in consequence wrecked them – Harry Limes was one of its victims as was Holly and Anna. Because of the Second World War and its idealistic call to arms innocent young people went to war and came back again changed people, able to perceive and sometimes act upon urges and desire that they never perceived of before the war.
I find it personally interesting that European directors are seen as important trail blazers in the development of Noir as Europeans very much saw the despair of the coming conflagration before the wider American public did – this spectre motivated their actions just as I contest it motivates the actions of characters within Noir itself.
To conclude, while I have perhaps seemed to be at pains to disagree with some of Shannon’s analysis in the podcast ironically it is on the matter of his primary conclusion that I agree with him.
Shannon has concluded that Film Noir is not a film genre but actually a film style. I agree – however, I agree precisely because I think The Third Man IS Film Noir where he does not.
Were Film Noir a genre then I would concede that The Third Man was definitely not Film Noir, because its format can be described as a suspense thriller and also as a war movie. But because The Third Man DOES, I believe, follow a code which broadly defines what Film Noir is – as described in the body of my above analysis – then one has to concede that Film Noir is a far more encompassing set of criteria which can be applied to a range of plot types rather than just that of hardboiled detective stories.
And so – ironically – in contesting that Film Noir is a style and not a genre Shannon perhaps inadvertently makes null and void his own opinion that The Third Man cannot be Noir. For If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck!
(Please accept my apologies Shannon - I hope you don't think I was being too unkind or adversarial in my arguments. I hope you enjoyed my remarks as much as I enjoyed your critique and see my reponses in the good natured spirit I intended them.)
As usual - thank you to anyone who actually reads this far for putting up with my ramblings!