„I never knew the old Vienna… “, we hear the voice of film narrator in the opening scene, while we watch rooftops of Vienna, quickly cutting to several shots of statues scattered around the city, the remembrance of once better times. Soon we are looking at the streets and ruins of the city divided into four zones (French, American, British, Russian), each populated with their own magnificent share of suckers, mugs, and shady officials. Detailed, slow-paced and a bit melancholic opening scene of “The Third Man” (1949) shows us, this is a film made with great care, by the people who had a firsthand understanding of World War II aftermath.
The man who saw the world burn
Director Carol Reed was working for the British Army’s documentary unit, during World War II and a screenplay was written by Graham Greene, espionage novelist who was actually MI6 operative. Roger Ebert explains Reed’s understanding of the importance of this film in his Chicago Sun-Times article “Reed fought with David O. Selznick, his American producer, over every detail of the movie; Selznick wanted to shoot on sets, use an upbeat score and cast Noel Coward as Harry Lime. His film would have been forgotten in a week. Reed defied convention by shooting entirely on location in Vienna, where mountains of rubble stood next to gaping bomb craters, and the ruins of empire supported a desperate black-market economy.”
Soon we are introduced to Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) curious, alcoholic American pulp novelist, who first set his foot in Vienna during, as narration calls it „The classic period of black market “. Holly is there on invitation of his good old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), and he actually comes right on time for his friend’s funeral. As we can see from short description of Holly, he is a perfect character to tackle down a mystery of how H. Lime died for us viewers. Just as it goes with noir genre tropes, „detective” Holly can‘t trust authority figure, in this case major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who is claiming that Harry was an evil man. Of course, what kind of noir story would it be if there wasn’t a beautiful girl involved in it? In a case of “The Third Man”, her name is Anna (Alida Valli), our protagonist Holly sees her at Lime‘s funeral, and he just has this “hunch” that she might know something important.
Something crooked in Vienna
The film was shot in 4:3 format, using wide-angle lenses. Most of the scenes are stylish medium close-ups. Because the film is filled with constant dialogues, „eye-line match” is used often. When it comes to all the action sequences, „The Third Man” was done in long shots that simultaneously intensifying events that are taking place but also Vienna street settings. Reed, obviously inspired by the work of German expressionist cinema occupies his film, with Dutch Tilt shots. With it, he manages to express subjectivity, and disorientation of characters as well as crookedness and mystery of the setting. Closer we get to the truth about who Harry Lime really was, and what is really happening, the camera angle gets higher.
The two most interesting scenes in the movie “Ferris wheel” and “The sewers” are the highest and lowest points in the lives of characters Harry Lime and Holly Martins, and director Reed has followed the narrative stream of Greene’s scenario in a particularly interesting way.
Looking at the tiny dots
The focus of the “Ferris wheel” scene is the dialogue of the two protagonists, without much action. Harry Lime is at the height of his game intrigue while Holly Martins is in the abyss, where everything he ever knew about his “old friend” breaks down before his eyes.
Lime for a moment, looks out the window of the Ferris wheel on the street, says the following line of dialogue: Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 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 spend?
What is important to notice is that the scene is filmed in the middle close-up of the two individuals with the exception of Lime watching the “small dots”, irrelevant people just passing by, which were filmed in full-shot.
Being a tiny dot
On the opposite side is the scenes in the sewers where the focus shifts. It is the action scene, we follow the escape of Harry Lime from the police, Dialogue is completely suppressed in this scene. Lime is at its lowest point in his shady activities, literally displayed through the descent to sewage, while Holly Martins is at the height of his conviction, Holly is now sure that what he thinks and does is right. The eight-minute sequences of persecution across the streets of Vienna and sewers were done in full-shot, with the exception of a medium close-up showing combat and death.
Nevertheless, in the climax of the scene, Holly is in front of his old friend Harry and must make a decision, will he spare him death. Reed in the last moment of the scene shows Holly in full-shot until then used for “tiny dots”, irrelevant and incidental characters in the film, leaving the question as to whether the protagonist renounced his individuality to fit into a crazy everyday world?
Ethics and Characters, 70 years later
In September this year will be the seventy-year since the premiere of The Third Man in Cannes. The film once won the Oscars for Best Cinematography, the BAFTA Best Film Award and the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a work that the cinemas continue to put on their repertoire while film theorists and moral philosophers still use it for example in their faculty lectures.