Criterion Files #64: The Third Man

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2010

Film noir is a much-debated subject amongst cinephiles. It’s often argued to be a genre or an aesthetic, yet any definition designating it as either typically encounters generality and contradiction.

Noir takes on many forms. It’s indefinite, but somehow you know it when you see it. In order to pursue a greater understanding of film noir, Adam and I are devoting the next four weeks to examining films noir from various directors, schools of style, and histories from around the globe.

So here, an examination of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), is the inaugural entry in a month of analysis we’ve decided to call “Noir-vember.”

The Third Man as Hybrid Text, Noir as Hybrid Category

It is rather appropriate to discuss the indefinite nature of film noir as a category with The Third Man because as a film it defies categorization in a way similar to noir as a descriptive category. Film scholar Dana Polan speaks extensively in the Criterion DVD commentary about The Third Man as “hybrid text,” meaning that the film embodies multiple identities at once.

The film’s hybridity is initially evident in its blending of genres, existing as a dark, Maguffin-laden detective style murder mystery that regularly integrates comic wit and whimsy. Like film noir itself, The Third Man’s home base of genre is hardly categorizable.

Secondly, there exists hybridity in the notion of authorship. While primary evidence shows that The Third Man from a directorial standpoint is wholly and undoubtedly the work of Carol Reed, the myth still persists throughout culture that The Third Man was actually a work of Orson Welles, with Reed operating as director in name only. While Welles admitted to crafting much of the dialogue in the iconic carousel scene, he continually denied the notion of a ghost appointment as director. Yet the spirit of Welles is permeable throughout The Third Man in moments beyond the surprisingly little screen time of his imposing persona. As Harry Lime is always the subject of the film even when Welles is not in the screen, so does the aura of Welles exist in these scenes, as if both Welles and Lime coexisted as an omniscient force of influence, guiding the narrative along to the inevitable revelation of the much-discussed figure.

The Hybridity of Orson Welles

While the presence of Lime persists through dialogue, the presence of Welles is tangible in the film’s implementation of style. Low camera angles are reminiscent of Citizen Kane, canted shots that turn its subjects into abstract renditions of themselves would later be explored by Welles in his own contribution to the noir canon, Touch of Evil. Much of Reed’s style, especially in the way he frames the architecture of Vienna and makes the city a character in of itself, can be attributed to the tradition of German Expressionist filmmaking posited as hugely influential on the evolution of film noir. However, one can’t help but see an influence of Welles (whose Citizen Kane engaged in a uniquely American form of “expressionism” which had few equivalents in classic Hollywood cinema besides maybe Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter) throughout Reed’s implementation of style. Thus, The Third Man’s formal influences, like the inevitable influences that construct any film, consist of a hybrid variety of sources.

But Welles as a location of hybridity himself takes place not only in the emergence of his directorial persona through the presence of his acting persona. Welles had a gargantuan cult of personality at this time emboldened by a voice that was heard across a variety of media. His daunting renaissance-man persona – as movie star, as radio star, as patron of the arts, as a compromised visionary filmmaker – was inseparable from his person, and in each character he played he also portrayed some iteration of “Orson Welles.” In fact, the hybridity of actor-and-character in this case particularlystuck with Welles, as he revisited the character of Lime later on in other media forms according to Polan.

So it is both perplexing and fitting that a figure with such gravitas was cast in what is by any definition a supporting role. Reed clearly needed an actor whose persona was so powerful that it could be located in scenes he was not even in, but The Third Man, in casting the movie star as villain, also uses Welles’ varied personae to reverse expectations of the conventional narrative: casting the charismatic movie star as villain, and casting a man far less imposing in his presence (Joseph Cotten) as the leading man. It is not without significance, of course, that The Third Man contains a reversal of the screen time shared between Welles and Cotten in Citizen Kane, and the choice to make the villain the magnetic source of the film’s allure (Welles does, after all, get all the best lines, many of which he wrote for himself) grew into a convention practiced time and again in films since (Think of The Dark Knight or No Country for Old Men, for instance).

This casting puts everything appropriately off-kilter in The Third Man, thus making its canted angles an appropriate reflection of the film’s mood, which brings me to the third manifestation of The Third Man’s hybrid textual nature…

Hybrid Nation

This off-kilter aesthetic is also thematically explored in the film’s relationship to nation and style. While Vienna remains a dominant “character” throughout The Third Man, its architecture and its people occupying every scene, Austria is hardly portrayed as being as solidified. In a state of postwar reconstruction, Austria was involved in a project of reclaiming and rebuilding its national identity into something that inevitably couldn’t emerge as quite the same thing as before. This reconstruction is explored through the film’s cultural confusion, positioning Cotten’s Holly as something of a man without history, surrounded by the history of a foreign land but unable to communicate with its citizens (there’s a reason the German remains untranslated via subtitles). Holly is surrounded by Austrian culture (which is why the iconic zither score occupies the foreground and not the background), but he has no means of accessing it.

It is the fact alone that the film is about British, American, and Austrian people interacting in Vienna that illustrates this hybridity of nation and national identity. But this trope is perhaps most explicit in the existence of The Third Man as an international co-production, using American actors, American studio money, British actors, a British director, a British writer, and a Hungarian producer (Alexander Korda) to deliver a story about postwar Vienna. The film also displays transnational hybridity through its implementation of various styles like German expressionism, Italian neo-realism (the casting of non-actors as Austrian citizens), Hollywood storytelling (which is subverted here as often as it is beneficially appropriated), and the use of WWII-era newsreel footage (familiar across America and allied Europe) to begin the film.

The Third Man, as a result, is neither American nor British, but a hybrid of both industries. Its noir-ness is not articulated as much through genre or aesthetic choice (though both are certainly at play here) as it is through its desperate, paranoid, deliberately inconsistent and off-kilter aura, creating a mood that is as alluring as it is an calculated rupture of traditional narrative expectations while thematizing this mood in various capacities. The very fact that it’s so difficult to define what The Third Man is is exactly what makes it such a brilliant example of film noir.