06 February 2011

33. The Third Man

Like so much classical Hollywood cinema, it starts with a simple, economical premise: Holly Martins comes to Vienna with promises of a job from his friend, Harry Lime, but upon arriving, he discovers his friend is dead. Martins suspects something is awry, and goes in search of answers.

This is an update of a classic setup or premise: "A stranger comes to town." You see this throughout literature and movies, wherein someone arrives in a hostile territory and manages to change everything. In this case, the setting does a lot of work: we are just past WWII, and Vienna lays in literal ruins. Beyond that, the city is divided into four areas, each controlled by a different country: US, UK, USSR, France. We learn all this through a VO over a montage of scenes of the city and an explanation of the black market, which gives us rich information that also sets up concerns for later in the story (the influence of the black market on the narrative).

Martins is an author, we discover, a writer of pulp fiction paperbacks. In ways, his fiction echoes the film's plot, the murder mystery, the layman doing detective work. Martins begins an investigation, questioning witnesses, much to the chagrin of the British MP, who warns him off, tells him that Lime was a criminal.

At min 20, Martins meets Lime's lady backstage at her job in the theatre. They discuss Lime as she removes her makeup and wig, a visual representation of her inner nature.

"I wonder if it wasn't an accident." The debate is over. Act two begins with Martins having Lime's lady on his side and a full desire to discover Lime's killer, and having successfully avoided being deported. He discovers that three men gave evidence about the death, and he has met two. Who is the titular third man? This question drives along the remaining two acts.

He meets the Romanian at a nightclub, who denies there is a third man. He sets up a meeting with the porter, but as he arrives, he discovers the porter has been killed. He is framed for the murder, escapes with Lime's lady to a movie (another part in the motif of fiction and reality intersecting).

Martins is picked up from the hotel, driven recklessly through the streets. The irony here is that we and he both feel he is to be killed. A twist: he's delivered to a lecture he's set to give, a switcheroo payoff to a setup in the first act (yet another fiction/reality intersection).

Midpoint. He's chased after the lecture, manages to get away (shades of Lime's eventual demise at the film's end). He meets up with the British MP, who reveals that Lime was diluting rationed penicillin, thereby directly causing deaths. Martins is at a low point, agrees to leave the city.

At 105 mins, he walks back to his room and realizes he is being followed. He stops in a plaza, yells out. In one of cinema's best reveals, we see Harry in a doorway, a Mona Lisa-like grin on his face. He runs off in the shadows, Martins following him to no avail.

The coffin is dug up at once, and indeed, one of Harry's underlings is in it. Harry is alive!

Martins realizes Lime was the third man all along, goes to the other two men and tells them to have Harry meet him at the Ferris wheel. As a good writer of fiction, he knows there must be a confrontation.

Harry arrives, his stomach pains, his focus on survival, his veiled threats, his famous cuckoo clock speech.

The final confrontation involves Harry scrambling through the sewers like a rat in a maze, sounds coming from every possible escape. He kills an MP, is shot. Gripping a sewer grate in desperation, Cotten confronts and kills him. A parallel can be made from Lime's desperation to that of the Allied countries after the war: they are focused on survival, clinging to any escape or reprieve; if they turn towards illicit or amoral activity, they should and will end up dead.

The end is a shade of the beginning: Martins goes to Lime's funeral. It is really him in the coffin this time. And in a glorious final twist, subverting the happy endings of the time, Martins waits for Lime's lady after the funeral, and she walks right by him, does even look at him.

Beyond the writing, the thing to remember about this film is the use of a location, which uses Vienna to such rich effect, and the amazing B&W cinematography, particularly the use of canted framing and focus on shadows.


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