The Third Man (1949)

Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man is a masterpiece of the noir genre. It’s a film that comes laden with a six-and-a-half decades of admiration, fan exegesis and a legion of movies that have been inspired by its brilliance.

What struck me most forcefully was how unfettered the writer, famed British novelist Graham Greene, was in trotting out his favorite subject – faith and its place in the modern world. Where things become really interesting is in how director Carol Reed then takes this idea and unfolds it in every aspect of the film.

Basically, the question that needs to be answered is “who is the third man?” And, once you allow yourself to step back a step and look at that query beyond the confines of the plot it’s essentially a question about God. Or, specifically, what use is faith in a world seemingly abandoned by God?

Of course being introduced to the protagonist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), as he steps penniless off a train there is little to suspect this kind of heady introspection is to follow. He’s the archetype of a sadly common stripe of American expatriate - blundering about with his nationalistic sense of self-confidence and assured his standing in the world puts him above the dealings of others.

It’s a detached facade which he seems to have perfected given his role as an author of cheap pulp fiction. And it seems to presuppose his casual atheism, he still goes through the motions of his faith but there’s little evidence he really believes it. So when the crisis of faith comes, he isn’t suspecting it and – most likely – doesn’t even recognize it for what it is until far too late.

When his erstwhile benefactor turns up dead he’s got little else to do but wander aimlessly around the ruins of the city asking questions nobody wants to answer and not understanding what he’s being told anyway.  It’s an arrogance of ignorance but that’s enough to qualify as hubris in the end.

Eventually, as events start to overtake him, Martins starts looking for the source of it all – he starts searching for meaning. Or, if you will, God. And the latter proves remarkably difficult to track down. There might be a good reason for that since the aspect of God winding his way through the modern world is, in fact, the Third Man.

With God the Father tucked safely away in the hoary domain of the Old Testament and the Son conveniently ascended back up to the celestial realm the only aspect of the deity left hanging around is the third aspect of the trio - the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit) is a tricky one to nail down in the best of times. He reportedly dwells inside each of us, the aspect of God within us all, yet also is the mechanism by which one can be led to one’s faith and, therefore, salvation.

Yet, although he’s damn good at hiding, it seems clear someone is pulling the strings. That is how the whole film starts, in fact, with the strings of the zither being played but the hand moving them remains invisible, unseen, only present by the effects of its efforts.

Over and over in the film the actors are buffeted about by forces they neither understand nor can perceive the origin of. Something invisible is at work moving them to its own designs but they have no proof of it, they can only see the effects of its actions.

It’s setting in post-war Vienna gives a crippled backdrop to the drama which matches the flailing moral fortitude of the protagonists perfectly. The strange angles of the camera work have been lifted from the hallucinatory settings of The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari and placed in the regular world. It does more than simply unnerve the viewer in moments of suspense, they show the twisting labyrinth of ethics and morals which shift as each new bit of information is revealed.

The disconcerting visual look of the film is Reed’s own distinctive brand of noir but the wordplay and irony is vibrantly Greene’s (as well as a good bit of the humor). The masterstroke is the Anton Karas score which winds through the film; sometimes whimsical, sometimes tragic, but saturating the drama with its haunting melodies.

It’s all a twisted mirror image of Casablanca. All the tropes are in evidence; a tragic love triangle, the oddly fey companion, a weary inspector lurking at the fringes and, most importantly, a disputed passport inevitably driving the players forward despite themselves.

And, in both films, the men keep running in circles looking for their own brands of meaning, it’s the woman that keeps the thing going - Martins falling inevitably in love with a woman who still loves a man who doesn’t love her.

But, as has been noted, Casablanca may represent the hope of the war effort but The Third Man embodies the cynical weariness of a world devastated by war. In the former, the passport provides a passage to a better place, here it is ripped up and thrown disdainfully on a bar unused.

Even if God is gone and waiting for him is a fools errand, faith is still necessary

Martins has the tattered shell of a faith, believing in God because he is supposed to but without a foundation of belief to ground it. He makes the decision to help another for what he thinks is selfless reasons but is really just to assuage his own guilt. His final decision to act is with the knowledge it’s the right thing to do but not because he feels any compulsion to act in an ethical manner.

Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is the one man who has faith and believes in truth, if not actually in God. He knows his place in the world and works in the confines of his moral background to do what is right. While the men around him are following a protocol they don’t understand anymore, he’s notable for his directness of purpose. He’s an antiquated figure who still holds power – but only within his own sphere and is unable to act beyond it. Something Lime knows well and uses to his advantage.

Because if Martins is a naive American then Lime is the brass knuckle capitalist Yank of the worst stripe. The bottom line is all that matters and he’s got plenty of raffish charm to make sure he gets his share.

Martins has enough insight to recognize that his friend’s view of the world has jettisoned God altogether, but Lime denies it.

“Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here, poor devils.”

He’s a man without morals who fits quite well in a world without God.

And when Lime faces his own mortality in the chilling crescendo of the film he reaches up out of the sewer for a salvation he had dismissed before so casually. His fingers stretch through the grates of the sewer reaching for the heavens and, instead, just barely touching the tawdry world he looked down upon with such disdain before.

Title: The Third Man
Year: 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli

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