I would like to dedicate this retrospective to the “Save the UCLA Arts Library Petition” (AKA: Stop the closing of the library where Drew Morton gets his books so that he can continue to write thoughtful reviews like these). If you enjoyed the series and/or you’re a supporter of arts education, I strongly encourage you to sign the petition.
While the term film noir (literally “black film” for those non-Francophiles) was coined by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946, the first prolonged study devoted to the term did not appear until 1955 with the publication of Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du Film Noir Américain: 1941-1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953). Their definition is helpful but, as we shall see, also problematic. For Borde and Chaumeton, noir was “A ‘new’ series…from one country sharing certain traits.” Yet, as the years progressed, noir became an internationally complicated term. While the genre takes its name from a French phrase, draws influence from such international cinema movements as German expressionism and French poetic realism, is strongly indebted to the literature movements of French existentialism and the American hardboiled school, and was often practiced by European émigré directors, noir is often treated as being fundamentally American. As film scholars Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward have written, noir is “an indigenous American form…a wholly American film style.” If we are to accept this definition, is our third greatest noir, the fittingly titled The Third Man (1949), truly a noir at all? After all, it was written by British novelist Graham Greene and directed by British filmmaker Carol Reed.
Let’s begin rather typically with a brief overview of the plot to help clarify. The film takes place in the war-torn and recovering Austrian capital of Vienna. In the aftermath of the war, the city was segregated into four zones, each policed by an Allied power. The film begins with the arrival of American novelist Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten), who has traveled to Vienna with the hope of gaining employment from his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Shortly after arriving, Martens discovers that Lime was killed by oncoming traffic. At the funeral, Martens meets Lime’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and is questioned by two British Army officers, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), regarding the character of his late friend. You see, the British police believe Lime was involved in the Viennese black market, peddling diluted (and potentially fatal) penicillin to military hospitals. Martens is quick to defend his fallen friend to the officers and, hoping to exonerate Lime, begins his own investigation. As his investigation progresses, Martens begins to suspect that Lime was murdered. That is, of course, until he finds the smirking Lime skulking around the city.
What can we glean from this summary in the hopes of better understanding the nationality of The Third Man and its possible identity as a noir? While scholar and Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader describes noir as being American in his “Notes on Film Noir,” he does write that there are indeed foreign offshoots, under which he specifically names The Third Man. Why would Schrader describe a British film as being noir? Well, quite simply, The Third Man fully realizes the bulk of his thematic and stylistic definition. Post-war disillusionment? Check. As Schrader notes, film noir often reflected the outlook that society was something less than worth fighting for and, in the Vienna of The Third Man, we have that exact environment. Friendship ultimately means little to Lime and, shockingly, even less to Martens. Moreover, the promise of a romantic relationship with Anna means even less to the two men. In the end, she is the only character who holds true to her principles, which is elegantly captured in the film’s final shot. While the film may not include other noir staples such as the femme fatale or the gratuitous violence that Borde and Chaumeton also use to define the term, the plot of The Third Man most definitely produces a “state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed.”
This state of tension is almost completely the product of Harry Lime. Take, for instance, the scene in which Lime and Martens engage in a dialogue aboard the Riesenrad, Vienna’s iconic Ferris wheel. Martens asks Lime if he has ever felt bad for the victims of his medicinal racket, to which he responds:
Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.
Lime is quite clearly unscrupulous in his actions, as his remark that abstracts the value of human life will attest. Yet, thanks no doubt to Welles’ wonderful performance, we feel tempted by his proposal and we can’t help but half-agree when he describes his world-view in the film’s famous “Cuckoo Clock” speech (which Welles wrote himself):
Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly!
It is a testament to the film’s greatness that Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene (again, aided by Welles) were fearless to portray Lime in such a charismatic fashion. As with most noirs, we are drawn to the charisma of the film’s villain, similar to that feeling we encounter when watching Robert Walker’s Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). This attraction to Lime is the element that draws me back to The Third Man. As with most crime films, it’s an intoxicating thrill to vicariously live on the dark side of human nature. Yet, it is also a frightening (perhaps even enlightening) experience when we become faced with the moral tension of living a life in which psychological reference points are removed.
While the plot and characterization of the film go a long way in solidifying the film’s status as a noir, the aesthetic of the film successfully seals the deal. Going back to Schrader’s definition, does The Third Man exhibit a post-war realism or, to be more specific, was the film shot on location? Absolutely. Not only was the film shot in the actual rubble of post-WWII Vienna but also the bulk of the climactic sewer chase was shot on location (much to the discomfort of Welles). Are the majority of the scenes lit for night? Obviously. Does the film engage in German expressionism’s preference for compositions consisting of oblique and vertical lines? Yes. In fact, Reed’s use of askew camera angles matches this description so infamously well that director William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Detective Story, and Ben-Hur) sent him a spirit level as encouragement to lose the compositional tendency! In the end, The Third Man, despite its lack of purebred American cinematic DNA, is both thematically and stylistically a noir.
Even today, the nationality of Carol Reed’s film remains a contested issue. To fully state the facts of the case, The Third Man was directed by a British film director, written by a British screenwriter, and produced by a Brit (Reed), a Hungarian born producer-director who worked extensively in the U.K. and U.S. (Alexander Korda), and an iconic Hollywood producer (David O. Selznick). In front of the camera were both the city of Vienna and a cast consisting of Italians, British, Austrians, and Americans. Yet, both the British Film Institute (BFI) and the American Film Institute (AFI) have declared it one of the best films ever produced in their respective countries. Perhaps the film and noir more generally are best defined as being analogous to the Vienna portrayed in the film: easily sub-divided into separate national zones, but defined overall by a tendency towards the international.
Waiting for a hint as to the identity of my second favorite film noir? Let’s just say that it holds some continuity of cast with The Third Man.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.