Empty Balcony: The Third Man

How presumptuous of me. I didn’t realize how classic this film was when I decided to watch it for a review. How does one review an acknowledged work of art? What more could I add to the conversation but my own ignorance? Academic papers have been written about this movie. In contrast, I have no credentials or expertise. I have never been employed as a film critic. This film, and its potential viewers, do not need me to affirm that it is indeed an indispensable piece of cinematic history. Were I to point out flaws or even offer gentle criticism, it could be dismissed out of hand as the scribblings of an amateur. That’s how good The Third Man is.

Directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man is an adaptation of the novella by the same name by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay. In the film, Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, a down on his luck writer of cheap Western novels. He arrives in post-war Vienna, 1949, after receiving a message from an old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), offering employment. Being only a few years since the close of the war, Vienna is still an occupied city, divided into four sectors run by the Americans, Russians, British, and French. Its streets are clear and clean, but there is nary a block to be seen that doesn’t have a pile of rubble or the shell of a building — the remains of the Allied bombing campaign.

Holly makes his way to Harry’s apartment, only to find that his friend was killed in a truck accident, and is being laid to rest that day. Holly goes to see his friend buried, and meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a member of the British Army Police, part of the occupying forces. Calloway was no friend of Harry Lime’s. Rather, he was investigating Harry for his activities on the black market. He advises Holly to go back home to America, and makes arrangements for him to do so. But Holly just can’t let Harry’s death rest, and begins his own investigation, sure that the death was no accident.

Along the way, Holly meets Harry’s business acquaintances and his lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czechoslovakian hiding out in Vienna with a forged passport showing Austrian lineage. If she is found out, the Russian occupying authority will deport her back to Czechoslovakia, and possibly even worse, considering what happened to so many people who were repatriated to the wrong side of the Iron Curtain after World War II ended.

Holly is a persistent and stubborn man. No matter how many times he is warned off his pursuit of the truth, he keeps going, uncovering more and more facts about what really happened to his friend. All this leads to a final act where, without spoiling a thing, wraps up the film beautifully.

And I do mean beautifully. Reed’s cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won the Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography for his work on this film. I am having a very hard time thinking of another black and white film that was shot this well. The first that comes to mind is The Innocents, but that film didn’t have a location like post-war Vienna. That battered and bruised town was a photographer’s dream, and Krasker and company used it to effect. Distant backlighting and a sheen of moisture on the streets make areas bathed in light glow in high contrast to the shadows. The lifeless shells of buildings and the rubble tower over the action on the street with the menace of gigantic gravestones. It’s unnatural to see so much of a city in ruin and darkness, and it provides a powerful aesthetic counterpart to all the little dots running around the city involved in the plot.

As for that plot, Graham Greene was a hell of a writer, a literary giant, despite many of his books being a bit of a bother to find these days. His creation, Holly Martins, is an idealist and a fool. At times he blows whichever way the wind takes him, but as soon as someone gives him much needed advice, one can be sure Holly will do the opposite. Holly is about as rich a character as someone so simple can get, and a testament to Greene’s skill as a writer. He had a method when it came to writing his main characters, as seen in other works in his oeuvre. Greene takes a man, places him in a foreign city, and gets him involved in machinations of which he knows nothing. After that, only trouble can ensue. It’s a pattern, sure, but one that worked well for Greene in his novels, and in this film.

The Third Man is one of the best films I have ever seen. All I can hope for in this review is that I have impressed that upon my readers. Seeing it can only enrich a person’s experience of film.