Noir Week on Tor.com

Noir Films Perfected: The Third Man

The Third Man is director Carol Reed’s 1949 noir starring (among others) Joseph Cotten, and is adapted from Graham Greene’s novella of the same name. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s about a pulp writer. He’s named Holly Martin and visits Vienna after the second World War, and discovers that neither the city (split between the English, the French, the Russians, and the Americans) nor his friend Harry Lime (who offered him a job in Vienna before dying in a hit-and-run) are what they seem. Spoilers ahead!

I recently watched The Third Man as part of my participation in Border Town, a 12-week design studio in Toronto focused on cities divided by international borders. I’m participating as part of my design thesis for my Master’s in strategic foresight. In September, we’ll be installing and showing our deliverables at the Detroit Design Festival. Although I was had intended to focus on issues of international policy during my viewing, I found so much more I wanted to discuss and I’m glad of the opportunity to do so here.

The Third Man is basically a perfect noir film. It features a convoluted plot rooted in the banality of evil that (unlike The Big Sleep) never loses its own thread, and deeply flawed characters who never quite disgust the viewer enough to put her off the film itself. And those are just the basics of its storytelling: the cinematography and music are now legendary in their influence on contemporary filmmaking. As Luc Sante points out in his Criterion Collection essay:

The Third Man (1949) is one of that handful of motion pictures (Rashomon, Casablanca, The Searchers) that have become archetypes—not merely a movie that would go on to influence myriad other movies but a construct that would lodge itself deep in the unconscious of an enormous number of people, including people who’ve never even seen the picture. The first time you see it, your experience is dotted with tiny shocks of recognition—lines and scenes and moments whose echoes have already made their way to you from intermediary sources. If you have already seen it, even a dozen or more times, the experience is like hearing a favorite piece of music—you can, as it were, sing along.

For example, consider where else you’ve heard music like this providing the underlying motif for an entire film score:

Did you guess Brazil? That’s no accident. Both films feature thoughtful protagonists lost in nightmarish cities where the law seems absurd and almost no one is trustworthy or reliable. The cheerful music provides an ironic background to the heinous acts depicted on the screen. (And in case the thematic similarities aren’t enough to convince you of the cinematic lineage between these two, Terry Gilliam’s co-writer on Brazil, Charles McKeown, plays a minor character called “Harvey Lime.”)

Similarly, the visual language of The Third Man has entered our cinematic lexicon:

First, notice the deep, silken blacks. The Third Man is real noir: you have to watch it with the lights off, or you’ll lose the subtle gradations of shadow to ambient glare. Second, notice the deliberately off-kilter angles that Reed uses to frame his shots. By keeping long portions of the film off-centred, he keeps the viewer off her balance and communicates the confusion and anxiety that the protagonist experiences while in Vienna. Third, notice how slowly the scene unfolds. Each character is waiting on pins and needles for the villain to arrive, but instead an old drunkard selling balloons shows up. It’s the world’s longest cat-on-a-trashcan gag, but it’s almost unbearably tense.

Naturally, we turn now to the villain who takes so long to arrive: the third man, Harry Lime, played unforgettably by Orson Welles. This was another collaboration between Cotten and Welles following Citizen Kane, and to some extent they play grittier, more human versions of their characters in that film. As Holly Martin, Cotten is the friend who wants desperately to believe in Harry Lime. But over the course of the film, Martin must confront once and for all Lime’s selfishness, duplicity and appalling lack of a moral compass. Because as we discover, Lime is not only a smuggler and racketeer, but one who has been selling diuted anti-biotics to the families of children with spinal meningitis. Small children have died in horrific agony because Lime wanted to make a buck. He had no other reason for conducting this scheme — just simple, common avarice and an utter disregard for human welfare. It’s a small act with wide-ranging consequences, and Cotten’s expression as he looks at the twisted bodies of dying kids makes the film’s (and Lime’s) ending inevitable.

While most noir films are about betrayal, The Third Man is one of the few that lays that betrayal at the feet of an old and dear friend and not a woman. Stories about conniving femme fatales, like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, are easy to tell and re-enforce hetero-normative culture by preaching at men to stay away from strong women who will go to the same lengths as men and stop at nothing to get what they want. But The Third Man gets at the unspoken core of male friendship and pries the lid off the dishonesty that occurs when one person is carefully, tactically blind to the flaws of another. It’s no surprise when we learn that Lime has always been a sucking parasite of a friend. What does surprise us is Martin’s willingness to finally admit it.

Holly Martin isn’t the only one who’s been blind to Lime’s flaws. Lime’s girlfriend, Anna, knows exactly what he’s been up to, but refuses to internalize the implications or consequences of his behaviour. She loves him, purely and at her own expense and to her detriment, even choosing to remain in Vienna where the Russian authorities are looking to put her in prison rather than leave Lime behind. It’s disgusting and tragic, but also deeply human and true. When Anna leaves Martin behind at the end of the film, she’s doing her best to remain faithful — even if her loyalty means her destruction.

This ending articulates one of the key values in any noir film or story: no good deed goes unpunished. There is no reward for good behaviour. Martin chooses wisely, but doesn’t win the girl. The Allies won the war, but Vienna is still a den of inequity. And in fact, it’s that win which allowed a villain like Lime to arise. Without the absurdly complicated division of Vienna into Allied “zones” following the war, Lime would have no market for his misdeeds. If goods could flow easily throughout the city, he wouldn’t get a high price for smuggled drugs. The system, despite being created by well-meaning people, created the opportunity for this man to thoughtlessly and indirectly murder scores of children.

Lime himself (with writing assistance from Orson Welles) explains this rather beautifully:


Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and foresight consultant. Her first novel, vN will be available next summer.

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