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DeaconsDen Classic Reactions – Carol Reed’s The Third Man

The Third Man is a movie that is in between identities and views. It’s a film that even if you’ve never seen it before, you think you’ve seen it one way and it ends up being another. It’s meant to disorient you. It achieves this at the earliest possible moment with the shot of the zither and it’s playing of the main theme over the credits. The Third Man was co-produced by a British producer, Alexander Korda and an American, David O. Selznick. The music acts as a sort of element to bring together the old European world of the film that Korda is producing, but also to give it a bit of splash that works in favor of Selznick selling this to U.S. audiences.

Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, an American novelist seeking answers about the death of his friend Harry Lime. Martins is another example of this conflict of identity and ideology. Martins is a cocky and sometimes not very bright American who has come over to postwar Vienna and is essentially is trying to assert his will in a foreign land. However, the European characters of the film push back against that. We witness this in the form of Trevor Howard’s Calloway. It’s a battle of old world vs new world. Old school artistry against new school commercialization. The Third Man presents itself as both European art film and American genre film.

The Third Man also enhances this tension with the various Dutch angles that director Carol Reed uses throughout. These represent that despite Martins’ arrogance as he moves about Vienna, he is disoriented, out of place and feels off kilter. Reed also uses the angles well in conversation as ways to indicate a power struggle. During the film, Martins calls Calloway, Callahan to which Calloway must retort that he is not Irish. Again, the idea of the American imposing his will and the European reassertion of that power. 

Typically in a film where the protagonist is in an unfamiliar world, it’s common to have that protagonist learn the ways of the world and eventually overcome the difficulty of existing there. It also can be common for the protagonist to slowly become aware of their shortcomings. The Third Man however doesn’t give Holly Martins that type of story. From the start we see him out of his depth. This is quite a creative choice especially with an American producer on deck. He thinks he knows any and everything, he never really gets near the truth. He’s constantly confused and never fully comprehends anything. Knowledge is power and Holly doesn’t have that, whereas other characters do. Also it’s a nice touch to have animals distrust Holly, a nice flipping of a trope where animals point out the antagonist.

The Third Man also examines the push and pull of the cynical nature of the postwar environment. A blurring of the the concepts of good and bad. We have the visual confirmation via the rubble and ruins that the Nazis have been defeated. However there is still evil. There is still crime, still malevolent nature. The end of the war brings up a new enemy. What is the greater evil? And just because America is a power that can run the world, this does not give an indication that they understand it.

Duplicity is at the center of the plot of The Third Man and it’s at the center of the themes of the film in general. A noir that jostles for position between its European and American natures to provide commentary of the postwar era by taking two major American actors and making a geopolitical statement on American nature. It’s fascinating to think it was able to be made with a co-producer like Selznick who produced Gone with the Wind, a movie that is pure American nature. The Third Man doesn’t simply balance two ideas is meshes them and let’s them combat each other to create one of the most distinctive noirs in movie history. 

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