the third man (1949)
A world in pieces, all trust is lost, nothing seems certain and nothing is safe from vanishing right before your eyes. War-torn Vienna at the end of the 1940's, and all seems temporary, survival day by day. Genre perfection is a difficult thing to measure; a flavor you've become so accustomed to that you only know it when you taste it. The Third Man takes aim and hits the mark. It lives in such a moment as all post-war thrillers, in the ruins of the old world with characters who've seen and felt too much, the darker things, and struggle to hold on to their last shreds of optimism. The Third Man leads us on that journey, from a murky and illogical world of suspicion for every one and every thing, back into balance, and of course, renewed trust for society and citizenship. The road-weary and battle-hardened civilian makes peace with authority all over again, while his best friend takes the road toward profiteering on the black market. Above all, like the best of genre, it's aware of itself and aware of the audience, doing its best to confound and surprise both from the first frame to the last. The Third Man is the best of pulp and the best of film noir, dark truths about our world minus the hand-wringing, sober but not somber. This is where the genre truly excels, a world that's seen the bleak reality of human suffering brought on by human lust for conquest for so long it's gone punchy. Characters feel powerless to change the world, they just strike up a cigarette and do the best they can. The deeper Joseph Cotton's Holly Martins is pulled in by this whirlpool of intrigue, the more the situation starts to unravel, the more he starts to unravel and the whole world seems to turn right-side-up by the end of it.
It's a funny fascination in The Third Man, image versus reality in a lot of ways. In our greatest imagination our friends are noble, our own lives are romantic and the good guys get the happily ever after. Martins plays the role of the American cowboy suddenly thrust into a different kind of wild west (Eastern Europe), but still behaving by the ideals of the novels he writes. He drinks and stands up to the law men, he lives out on his own limb and saves the girl. No one in this town has any patience for the lone ranger though, they've all survived the way they know how in this Hell, and an outsider can't understand. It doesn't dissuade Martins from his inquest, he rides through the town sans steed and does what the comical American character always does, gets to the bottom of the mystery regardless of what anyone around him cautions him against. To Martins' credit, he discovers the foul play and solves the mystery, although by the time he does he realizes the gray areas, the complexity, that plague the world today and nothing is as simple as the cowboy might have hoped for. Reed frames the whole affair with a casual and wry sense of wit, a sort of aloof cynicism fully befitting of the times. We should do well and be thankful to live in interesting times, after all, terrible as they may be. What does peace and comfort get you, anyway? The cuckoo clock, as Welles puts it, in the film's most summative and poignant bit of dialogue. The Third Man relishes the dark and dangerous and smiles at death with a refreshing candor. In this struggle for survival, forgery is the name of the game, and playing cat and mouse with the untrusted authorities is not only a citizen's price for survival, but a duty, a way of life. Martins seems to side with this at first, but his conscious (and a very real death threat) get the better of him. Not so for Alida Valli's Anna, in the world of The Third Man there are different worlds and those worlds cannot connect. Perhaps Martins finally realizes that Anna and Harry have gone through transgressions that he has not, and his world is still sided more with the authorities. Perhaps, as one untouched by the conflict of World War II on his own doorstep, Martins realizes that he can never understand. Lime aims more to behave as the world he sees around him, not from any internal drive, to behave as governments behave. After all, if the governments of the world have seen fit to treat human life as dispensable, why should he not behave under the same logic? The world around him has changed the game of human existence and so he proceeds forward with the same mindset. As the curtain falls and the final chase is on, it's Martins who pulls the final trigger and no one else. Again, a changed man in a changed game, the values of friendship and brotherhood no longer taking precedence as they had at the film's outset. If nothing else, The Third Man speaks of our ability to see things in a new light, to compromise our own principles when push comes to shove, how simple everything had seemed to Martins when he first arrived.
In a world turned on its head, no one is quite sure how to behave. The Third Man communicates it all, the darkness, with an ever-knowing grin and a chuckle. Perhaps it says the most about its era that all of this death and destruction, all of the people so sure of their righteous ways, play as humorous in this new era. The war had changed more than just the landscape, had laid waste to more than just monuments, it had forever changed the minds and the souls of all men who came under its fire. Even those who were indirectly affected by its destruction would be corrupted by its lingering presence. The world, in the midst of rebuilding, would never truly return to the way it was before it all, and that much was clear. The Third Man stands as a reminder that when all else fails, there's nothing left to do but throw your hands up. Martins' resignation to sell out his friend in favor of idealism is punctuated only by Anna's cold shoulder. In this world there are no good guys, just people, each operating under a different set of rules. They struggle to survive and the only thing that truly lingers is the spirit of the times. Under different times, and different circumstances, perhaps they could have been very different toward one another, a different presence in each other's lives, but our lives cannot be separated from our era, nor can our actions. We can only hope to survive beyond the times and into the next epoch. Maybe then we'll understand and be understood.