The Third Man

Directed by Carol Reed

UK, 1949

Cornerhouse, 6 October 2013

The Third Man

In post-war Vienna we have a noir city par excellence, a city of baroque sculpture, ruined, rubble-strewn buildings and subterranean sewers.

Greene got this milieu down pat, his story and later screenplay painting a divided city with the British and Russians squabbling over jurisdiction, a prelude to the Cold War that soon followed.  There is an apparent allusion to Greene’s earlier film, The Fallen Idol, in the way that the young lad sees Martins and the porter arguing on the day before the latter’s death.  It is clear, by the way, that Martins’ carelessness places the porter in danger.  He does kill him, as good as.  And Martins kills Lime out of mercy, the way you’d put a bullet into a horse with a broken leg.

Martins is a blunderbuss, no wonder the Viennese fear him.  Everywhere he goes, he finds paranoia and a fear of the police, for no one has a life that can survive too much official scrutiny.  How could they, in a city where Hitler had been applauded in the Heldenplatz a decade before and where the black market thrives?  Many had probably informed on others or are living in houses vacated by deported Jews.  The Baron and the Doctor are clearly gay, so that’s another reason to fear exposure.  Not to mention the Doctor’s dodgy collection of medieval altarpieces.  Where did he pick them up?

Happily, Welles’ performance as Harry Lime holds up: he’s an amoral charmer with a slick line in self justification.  Howard’s measured, nuanced portrayal of Major Calloway impresses as well, mind.  For example, in the way he refers to war: ‘Right when the business started?’  And in general: in the way in which he’s reserved yet humane.  Lime’s late appearance is one curious feature of the film, another is that Lime and Calloway never meet.  Alida Valli is beautiful, a woman hopelessly in love.

The Third Man is a genuine classic: it can sustain several viewings and after each one your appreciation of film is enhanced.  It is showing again as part of the Matinee Classics season on Wednesday and Thursday, further details are here.