The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.
Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a naïve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.
Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.
The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.
And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.