Daunted and scared by having drunkenly agreed to review what might be the greatest film ever made, our intrepid reporter decides to skip most of it, and review the first ten, and last two, minutes instead.
First things first. I’m assuming you’ve seen The Third Man. What follows might not make a great deal of sense if you haven’t.
The subject of the first shot of The Third Man is not immediately recognizable. Parallel lines divide the screen from left to right into a series of slivers. For a moment they are motionless, and we believe ourselves to be looking at a still photograph, or painting; then they begin moving, vibrating in place, synchronized with the jangly, nervy music that starts at the same time. We realize we have been looking at the strings of a musical instrument, a zither, and this single long close-up take is held for the entirety of the credit sequence.
This one shot has a lot to do. In the first place the credits foreground the importance of the music to the film that will follow, and it is hard to think of a cinematic soundtrack more emblematic, or tasked with more to do, than Anton Karas’ Harry Lime Theme; Jaws, perhaps. The shot also serves to show us a divided field of vision, and division is one of the principle themes of The Third Man. What we are about to watch is a film about divided loyalties, in a divided city. The thrumming vibration of the strings ineluctably deliver a sense of tension – as Baron Kurtz will later say to Holly Martins “it’s wonderful how you keep the tension.” Perhaps most importantly, though, is the way the shot anchors the viewer’s eye to the horizon, gridding the screen in precise, flat, 180 degree lines. When the rest of the film comes draped in Dutch angle, everything canted and off-kilter and nothing flat and square, our eyes know something is wrong before our brains do.
There are two distinct but similar beginnings to the narrative of The Third Man. The film opens with a montage made up of stock footage of post-war Vienna, and film of unidentified hands exchanging money and goods, of uncomfortable soldiers sitting in jeeps and of bodies floating in rivers. The montage is quickly and efficiently edited to give a convincing picture of Vienna in the late forties, and is accompanied by voice over offering a framing narrative explaining what we see. In the version released in Britain and Europe this voiceover is delivered by Carol Reed, the director; in the states it was delivered, in character, by Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, the protagonist of the film. The Criterion Blu-ray includes both, but defaults to the British opening. This is correct, I think, though initially it appears a peculiar decision. It isn’t as if we are removed from Martins’ perspective for the rest of the film, after all. Although the POV wanders promiscuously from character to character over the course of the narrative – we see through Harry’s eyes from the ferris wheel, through Calloway’s at the hospital – it is Holly Martins that is our most comfortable narrative proxy. We arrive in Vienna with him, meet each new character from his perspective and he is rarely off screen. If he doesn’t speak a language then it isn’t translated for us, if he doesn’t hear what someone whispers, then neither do we. So why not begin the film with his own voice? Well, though Cotten’s performance is exemplary throughout, and though his head is an interesting and comfortable place to be, it is better that the narrative frames itself, from the outset, as observing Martins’ progress from outside. We are ultimately invited to judge him, just as we judge Lime and Calloway and Anna. It is easier to judge him, if we aren’t him.
A word about that level of judgement, and that use of language. As I noted above, The Third Man employs no subtitles and yet large sections of the film’s dialogue are delivered in languages other than English, mainly German. Martins, the innocent American abroad, is regularly completely unaware of what is going on around him, and is reduced to demanding translation and elucidation. He is often ignored, or offered misleading and peremptory responses. The usual reading of this is that we, the audience, are to be confused along with him, otherwise there’d be subtitles to enlighten us. My schoolboy German, however, is more than adequate to the task of translating the dialogue and I can’t for a second imagine that I’m a more competent linguist than Carol Reed or Graham Greene. The idea that they assumed their audience would be incapable of following the German dialogue seems unlikely to me. I think The Third Man allows us to settle on our own level of condescension – speak no German? Then travel further and further into the bowels of Vienna alongside good old Holly. Sprechen sie Deutsch? Judge the blundering and arrogant American as he time after time lacks the sensitivity to see what’s going on around him.
The Third Man is the story of a character who believes he is in one kind of story, but slowly discovers himself to be in another. Martins is a writer of “cheap novelettes” and he views the world through the prism of Western narrative tropes. Girls need protecting, friends deserve loyalty, do the right thing (and what the right thing is, is always obvious) and you’ll get your reward in the last chapter. We are invited to share the joke several times – Martins arrives at the train station, even though he has come from another continent and will, after the film, fly out on an aeroplane. Presumably he arrives by rail as even Greene and Reed couldn’t come up with a feasible method of having him ride into town on a horse. The first ten minutes includes scenes of Martins drinking whiskey from shot glasses and getting knocked down in a bar fight. The narrative tropes of the Western are also applied to The Third Man in less comical ways. Vienna is shown to be a lawless place, under too many jurisdictions but ultimately subject to none. It is a liminal zone, described in the opening monologue (both versions) as “international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers. Wonderful. What a hope they had, all strangers to the place, and none of them could speak the same language, except a sort of smattering of German.” This lack of guardianship, of capable governance and law, makes post-war Vienna an easy narrative comparison with Tombstone or Deadwood.
One more point about language – surely the Americans and the British, both “powers” share a language and are capable of communication? It would seem not. Martins is almost the only American in The Third Man. Major Calloway never interacts with American officers, only the French and Russians, and it is only when we meet Harry Lime himself, over an hour into the film, that we hear another American accent. Though Martins’ repudiation of Lime’s actions is never framed as one of national character, it is clear from his disgust at what he sees as Harry’s transformation, that Holly Martins feels that Harry Lime has been tainted by Europe, that he has lost his American identity. And Martins, the true American, never manages to successfully communicate with any of the British characters. He misnames Calloway, constantly calling him Callaghan, and is bemused and discombobulated by British affect and idiom. He berates the British propaganda officer Crabbin for what he mistakenly sees as his bloodless, mannered attitude upon hearing of his friend’s death.
“Martins: I was going to stay with him, but he died Thursday.
Crabbin: Goodness, that’s awkward.
Martins: Is that what you say to people after death? ‘Goodness, that’s awkward’?”
Of course, Crabbin’s “awkward” is not, as Martins believes, a flustered British expression of sympathy, but recognition that Martins is unaware of the true nature of his friend. Had Holly Martins spoke English the way the English speak English, he would have understood the subtext, but he didn’t. Once again, as with the unsubtitled German, this level of nuance may be intended to divide the audience into those that follow, and those that don’t. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the audience that is expected not to speak German, and not to understand the nuance of British English is the American one.
The Third Man is many things, pretty much all of them exceptional. What this most recent re-viewing, and reviewing, has brought home to me, however, is how much it is a film about American and British relations. Greene and Reed present a world where American moral certainty is shown to be facile and futile. One thing that becomes obvious on repeated viewings is how often Martins is simply ignored. There’s a wonderful moment where Calloway asks Anna for her papers – “Don’t give him anything” Holly orders, seeking to protect, and dominate, the woman he has fallen for, (and who his narrative universe has taught him he will save and possess in the final chapter). She doesn’t even look at him as she wordlessly hands her fake papers to the British officer – he may as well not be there.
This prism of American – British relations adds an interesting dimension to the very last shot of the film. The very long take of Valli walking directly to the camera is a brilliantly conceived piece of film-making. It ends the film perfectly. The return to the funeral of Harry Lime, almost the opening shot, closes the circle of the narrative and completes it. The fantastic composition of the shot, with the lines of road and tree line disappearing into a perfect vanishing point, with the character walking steadily, inexorably out of it, is a fitting final flourish to a film obsessed with its internal geometry. And, we are led to believe, it almost didn’t happen. Why it almost didn’t happen, and who is to blame for it, is where it gets interesting. Carol Reed told two different versions of his fight for the cold, hopeless ending. Greene’s original script had Anna and Holly leaving the funeral together, her in his arms. Greene apparently believed that film audiences needed a happy ending and that, anyway, the film wasn’t strong enough to withstand a loveless finish, being as it was “just an entertainment” and he fought for his original ending to be used. He later admitted his mistake, calling the ending “a masterpiece.” Note this – he called it Carol Reed’s masterpiece. To hear Carol Reed tell it he was beset on all sides by people who wanted to ruin his film, not just Greene, but also American producer David O Selznick. In a 1974 interview Reed quotes Selznick as having said “Jeezes, couldn’t we make a shot where the girl gets together with the fella?” Reed was quite happy to suggest that the American was a buffoon who didn’t understand the cold beauty of the narrative. Thing is, in his (Reed’s) notes from a 1948 meeting with Selznick in preparation for filming, he writes the following :
“[Selznick] felt that it was a great pity that at the end of the story Rollo [the original name for Holly Martins] and the girl Anna should finish together; we should go from the cemetery scene to Anna going away by herself.
Selznick felt this very strongly, that Anna’s love for Harry Lime should be fatal,especially since it seems impossible for her to be with Rollo immediately after the shooting of her lover”