Classic Film Noir does not always give us classic artistic noir. We don’t always get the dramatic chiaroscuro, the brilliant angles, the expressionistic camera-work that makes one think of Kafka as Surrealist painter. In the case of The Third Man, we get the whole enchilada, taut direction, suspense, off-kilter music and off-kilter scenes.
Set in a Post-War Vienna, divided up into four sections of international control, Graham Greene’s story takes us through the city nights and shadows and sharp contrasts, and underneath that night into the sewers. The angles, the distorted streets, the high human shadows launched against old city buildings, sends us deeper into a sinister and absurd realm without mirth. A sort of heart of darkness in the middle of a recently decimated “civilization”.
Joseph Cotten stars as Holly Martins, an American writer of pulp Westerns, who comes to Vienna to look up an old friend, Harry Limes, played by Orson Welles. Martins soon learns that Limes has been killed in an accident, goes to the funeral, and there meets some of Harry’s friends, including his girlfriend, Anna, played by Alida Valli. Something doesn’t feel right about the whole thing, and Martins starts to dig for information about his old friend. This puts him on the wrong side of several dangerous characters involved in the Viennese underground. The British police try to get Holly to leave, but he won’t take their advice, and that puts him on a collision course with the authorities and those friends of Harry. Complicating matters even more, Holly falls for Anna.
In one of the most famous scenes from the film, Harry tells Holly about cuckoo clocks:
“You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Orson Welles wrote that part, not Graham Greene. He said years later that when the film came out, the Swiss very politely told him they don’t make cuckoo clocks. It’s still one of those movie speeches people remember long after the lights dim.
The time for the film is interesting. It’s after the war, but before the lines of the Cold War have been drawn. There are hints about that, as Anna is a Czech whose passport was forged to avoid being “repatriated” by the Russians. Holly tries to help her, and his choice — Anna or his old friend — becomes the central dilemma of the movie. Perhaps the choice of eras adds to the overall sense of suspense, of being in the middle of things, without clear cut goals and with far too many moving targets. It’s not a war. It’s not peace. And the characters are trapped in between night and day, truth and fiction, lies and the light.
The Third Man is a wonderful film. Like cuckoo clocks, they don’t make them like that anymore.