The Third Man - A Haunting Noir


What is it that makes an artwork important? Relevance over time is one answer. This past summer in New York City, both the Museum of Modern Art and Film Forum ran a month-long series of Film Noir screenings. And this December of 2014, the Brooklyn Academy of Music ran a "Sunshine Noir" series of Film Noir shot in Los Angeles. Three revivals in one year speak to the continued pertinence of this genre: Film Noir is timeless. On the surface, Noir is stylized and sexy, but its hidden undercurrent illuminates something about our deeper vulnerabilities.

Most Film Noir is set in the seedy underbelly of a big city, like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Shot in black and white, the blinking lights and cigarette smoke simmer in the darkness of night. These urban settings create a moody atmosphere for morally shady situations in the North American city. But, in 1949, one Film Noir broke new ground by shooting a fictional story within factual ruins. The Third Man, written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, uses the power of filming in situ. Instead of simulating city locations in a sound stage, The Third Man was one of the first Noirs to shoot almost entirely on location. And that location was Vienna -- a city fragmented by wars and foreign occupation.

Vienna was bombed heavily in World War II, so on-site filming shows intricate stone- carved facades punctured by piles of rubble. After World War II, Vienna was split like a puzzle, each of the many pieces controlled by one of the allied powers. But all four powers shared control of the city center. When the occupying powers would go on patrol in the city center, a representative from each county had to be in the car: this was called the "four men in a jeep period." Sir Alexander Korda recognized the visual power of this peculiar situation. Acting as producer, he commissioned Graham Greene to write a film specifically "about the four-power occupation of Vienna."

Vienna is the backbone for the events in The Third Man. The four zones of Vienna exist in a territorial separation that is echoed by the tension between the characters. The darkness of night, the grand plazas and the ornate architecture are all used to create distance between the characters. The Third Man is a story of betrayal. Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) has been invited by his friend Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles) to come out to Vienna for a business venture. Martins, a penniless American author, is looking forward to reuniting with Lime, but instead, he arrives in time for Limeʼs funeral. The British officer in charge of the investigation links Lime with a sinister penicillin racket, so Martins feels obliged to stay in Vienna to uncover the truth and clear Limeʼs name. In the process, Martins falls for Limeʼs girlfriend, Anna Schmidt. But Anna remains steadfastly in love with Lime, whether he is alive or dead, villain or victim. And for Martins, what was so clear becomes foggier as he discovers the truth about his beloved friend, Lime.

The storyline tugs at the line between loyalty and betrayal, shifting this line with every scene. The film utilizes the architecture to echo these shifts; the material surfaces in Vienna undulate intricately, from the dimensionality of a carved facade to the niches of an interior. As light moves the shadows, a dance of concealing and revealing is performed by the architecture in The Third Man. In one scene, Holly Martins is walking a dark, empty, cobblestone street. A catʼs meow tips him off that someone is hiding in the darkened doorway across the street. Holly leans against the cement wall, as if to anchor himself, and yells into the darkness: “Come out, come out, whoever you are!” An awakened second-story neighbor throws open a window and yells down, casting a shard of light into the dark doorway revealing, for the first time in the film, the face of Harry Lime. The architecture that concealed him in darkness now frames him in a spotlight.

There are at least four scenes where the dialogue occurs with one person yelling down or up to another person on another floor. The implied lines between the characters create taut triangles and diagonals, visually tethering the characters to the architecture and thus reinforcing the distance between them. For the American audience of 1949, the alienation of the city dweller would have been familiar through the paintings of Edward Hopper. Hopperʼs figures seem as rigid as architecture. His famous "Nighthawks" painting (1942) shows four people inside a late-night diner who seem estranged from each other. Using the window as a framing device, Hopper keeps the viewer outside, which accentuates the psychological distance between us as voyeurs and the figures in the painting, who in turn are emotionally isolated from each other.

In The Third Man, even the landmarks seem to carry an existential loneliness. The amusement park has few people and even fewer children, as though amusement was an idea of the past, destroyed by war, betrayal and greed. The looming Ferris wheel is worse for wear, turning slowly. Martins and Lime are on this ride, and we are shown a rare view of them together in the same frame. Even in close quarters, there is a threatening tension that separates them - a betrayal of ideals. As they look out onto the circular rooftops of the rides below and the diminished scale of the people below, we see through their eyes. For Lime, distance is protective: it safeguards his philosophy that other lives are expendable. For Martins, already betrayed, distance is perspective: he sees the circles below as the destructive ripple-effects of Limeʼs actions.

These geometric compositions are ever-moving in The Third Man. The camera films from extreme angles. Our point of view is jagged and never straight-on. For many shots, the camera is tilted as if weʼve permanently cocked our head to question our whereabouts. Like the filmʼs characters, we too are kept off-balance. In one scene, Martins is thrust onto a stage for a lecture on the contemporary novel. The camera angle is so extreme, it looks as though the audience might slide right off the screen. The situation is strangely comic. Martins, unprepared for the lecture, gets chased off the scene by racketeers before the frustrated audience completely runs out on him. Even the filmʼs audio keeps the characters and audience in a constant state of vertigo and movement. As if pushing you downhill in a red wagon, the loud soundtrack builds bursts of volume and speed. The jaunty, folkloric ramble reminds us that no one can stay long in these cock-eyed situations.

The shifts of scale and volume change our perceptions in a moment. The camera often switches from dogʼs eye view to birdʼs eye view causing the individual who looms large amongst the furniture to become a small dot on a suspension bridge. Strong directional light throws giant shadows even for small children, which keeps the figures stretched out across facades and streets and makes even the most innocent seem like looming threats. The recurring circles of the Ferris Wheel and kaleidoscopic staircases connote the wild goose chase of Martinʼs search for the true story. Martins is being chased and threatened because he is interfering with the racketeers nefarious plan for financial gain. Anna is being chased because her papers are forged, so she is threatened with deportation. And Lime is being chased as a criminal suspected of multiple murders. A final chase scene through Vienna leads us into the cacophony of the ultimate city underbelly -- the sewer. The hollowness of the city streets and the knocking of heels on cobblestones are subsumed by the sound of rushing waters. Here, sight and sound are climactically extreme. Motion versus stillness; light versus dark; identity versus ambiguity -- all the contrasts are here. And these shots are stunningly beautiful. The corridors are directionally illuminated. Perpendicular tributaries run in various directions to meet at multiple waterfalls. Clefts and contours are illuminated by glints of light catching the slick surfaces. The setting asserts its power here: in the sewer, there are no landmarks - only the echoes of the rushing water, the raking light and the arched passageways. The sensory and psychological escalation points to a confrontational end -- and ends the cycle of deadly deceit.

Shadows and reflections confuse our trust. The darkness of this Noir is not a metaphor for the unknown, it is a reminder that everything is discovered in glimpses. This is what is so powerful about The Third Man. In a black and white negative, the darkness of several shapes may cause them to appear as one. Only in time are the shapes revealed, distinguishing the definitive edges that surround us.

The setting of The Third Man is our mirror: we have not moved past violence. And this is precisely why it is important for todayʼs viewer to revisit this movie. The Third Man is no Ken Burns documentary, it is not informing us of our historical past. The devastation of war and the hope to rebuild is our present and our past. Even our best intentions, as embodied by the actions of Holly Martins throughout the film, are always the act of an outsider and end up in unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances. Sometimes, the unfortunate part isn't the result of a misstep, but of the fact that the larger system is corrupt and the individua's action may be too small. Yet, as humans, we are called to act. We are simultaneously powerful and powerless. This is the paradoxical truth that haunts The Third Man. - Michele Mackey

Ms. Mackey is a painter who lives and works in both Brooklyn, NY and Dallas, Tx. Her work can be viewed at