The Third Man (1949)

Dir. Carol Reed. Starring Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli

The Third Man starts slow. It builds atmosphere through its people (Alida Valli vamping, Trevor Howard with a mustache, Ernst Deutsch stuttering with an accent), through its sights (Vienna – if you haven’t seen the movie, just ask John Irving about it), and of course, with the zither score that I am contractually obligated to bring up. I usually find it dreary when people start angling their cameras, but for a movie like this it works; obviously, everything’s askew, and the camera may as well reflect it. The film ends taut, of course, with half of the Viennese constabulary chasing Orson Welles through the sewers and with a few gunshots which leave a couple men dead. In 1999, the British Film Institute found The Third Man to be the greatest British film ever made. I’d still take Lawrence of Arabia or The Red Shoes, but vox populi, vox Dei.

What is certainly one of the great moments in British film is, ironically, the province on American actor whose directorial style doubtless influenced the director. Look, you put the guy in the credits, you talk up “Harry Lime” for ninety minutes of a two hour film, and people are going to wait for Orson Welles playing Harry Lime to show up. If you haven’t seen The Third Man, which is finally on Netflix – before that, I had the devil’s own time finding it anywhere – I won’t tell you where he shows up. Just know that Carol Reed absolutely nails the reveal. I was like Lucille whenever Gene Parmesan shows up.

As stunning as that moment is, the part which has stuck with me takes place later on in the film on a Ferris wheel. Welles really doesn’t have a whole lot to say in this movie; this scene, only about three minutes long, is the high point of his dialogue.

How strange it is that the most dramatic scenes in a British movie set in Austria, the ones where everything culminates into a quintessence of dust, feature two Americans. In Bitter Rice, another 1949 flick about how the people of post-fascist countries try to move on, Silvana is cast as wannabe American. Her adulation of American styles, culture, dance, and bombast are what lead her to the two-bit criminal whose water she lets into the rice paddies carries, and ultimately her own death. The message was clear enough in Bitter Rice; too much capitalist America will lay you low. The message, curiously enough, also shines through in The Third Man. After World War II, as America becomes the eighth wonder of the world and its most thermonuclear, the trend of suspicion of American values and culture starts to grow. The movie’s most clueless character, Holly (Cotten) and its most enterprising, Harry, are thrown together in a Ferris wheel. Holly Martins writes middling Westerns, which has to be the most stereotypical “dumb American” job ever put on celluloid. There’s a dangerously funny scene (and a great red herring) in which Holly is stuffed into a car and driven at lightning speed through the cobblestone streets of the city; his driver won’t tell him where they’re going or why. It turns out that he’s late for the talk he was supposed to give on the modern novel for a club, and the people leave in droves as he fumbles questions about stream-of-consciousness prose and James Joyce. As for Harry Lime, he took penicillin, diluted it to increase the number of doses for sale, and did nothing as many children died from the corrupted, weakened medicine. That penicillin can represent any number of things (personally, I think “the Marshall Plan” is a little cute but it’s not such a terrible fit), but Harry Lime is nothing more than some updated Chicago gangster transplanted into central Europe.

Speaking of: the connection between The Great Gatsby and The Third Man has simply not been talked about enough.

Around the same time F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing Gatsby, he was also writing short stories which, if you put them all in a food processor together, more or less resemble The Great Gatsby. Matthew J. Bruccoli calls them “the Gatsby cluster,” which is a great name. “The Rich Boy,” the longest of the bunch, most reflects the snooty aspects of New York society and the terrible priggishness of the upper-class. “Winter Dreams,” the best of them, previews how obsession over a beautiful, rich, careless woman can destroy a man. “The Sensible Thing,” which is awfully funny, not only shows us Fitzgerald’s classic ’20s-style cringe humor but also highlights the ways that money makes people do strange things in a relationship. (It also features a Southern belle with a flowery name, which is nifty.) “Dice, Brassknuckles, and Guitar” is earthier than the rest, and not always included in the accounting of Gatsby cluster short stories, but does include a line which appears almost word-for-word in Gatsby“You’re better than all of them put together, Jim”  in the short story turns into the superior but similar “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” in the novel.

Finally, there’s “Absolution,” the most abstract and curious of the bunch, with a plot that Graham Greene would recognize from his own The Heart of the Matter; a boy who strongly resembles Gatsby in appearance and birthplace commits apostasy and doesn’t know what to do about it. Where Henry Scobie takes a rather more dramatic road, Rudolph Miller ultimately decides to leave the path altogether thanks to some advice from his priest.

Father Schwartz has this to say about lights and parties (yet another Gatsby plot point):

“Well, go and see an amusement park.” The priest waved his hand vaguely. “It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place–under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts–and everything will twinkle. But it won’t remind you of anything, you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon–like a big yellow lantern on a pole.”

Father Schwartz frowned as he suddenly thought of something.

“But don’t get up close,” he warned Rudolph, “because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.”

It’s absolutely coincidence that the most important scene of the film takes place at a Ferris wheel like the one that Fitzgerald describes, but it’s certainly a happy one. There could be nothing more American than a Ferris wheel. It was designed by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris to compete with the Eiffel Tower in grandeur and construction. The Eiffel Tower is a piece of art. The Ferris wheel, built with Bethlehem iron, is entertainment. It is glitzy, thrilling, potentially romantic, and most of all participatory. And the brief ride that Holly and Harry take together on that most American piece of work is a very American conversation. Harry, in his lust for profit, has lost whatever scruples he may have had before coming to Vienna. You mean to tell me, Harry says, that if I gave you 20,000 pounds every time one of those little specks on the ground stopped moving, that you’d tell me to keep the money? (There’s something especially chilling about those words, seeing as Americans like them had bombed scores of cities around the world into oblivion in the first half of the decade, doubtless thinking about little shadows on the ground.) Holly, having witnessed in a hospital what Harry’s greed has done to some children, is less inclined to hypotheticals.

Harry is, of course, much like Jay Gatsby himself, and especially like Jay Gatsby near the end. One can’t hear his common endearment of “old man” without immediately being in mind of Gatsby’s “old sport.” In Gatsby, the Trimalchio of West Egg begins to become irrationally overconfident in himself once he feels he’s recaptured Daisy (whose voice is, in Gatsby’s words, “full of money”), speaking passive-aggressively to Tom at the Plaza Hotel and, of course, aggressively-aggressively once his dander gets up. On the last night of his life, as he and Nick talk late into the night about Gatsby’s origin story, he is muddled and indecisive within his nostalgia. Harry seems more clearheaded, on the whole, but Welles plays him as someone who cannot quite exert all the self-control which he used to be able to dredge up. At one point, Welles’ half-smile very slowly turns into a much more threatening face as he thinks about how much easier his life would be if he tossed his best friend from home out of the carriage…and then backs off entirely. “What are we talking about?” he says genially, smiling once more – but only when he hears that the police know whose body was buried in the grave marked “Harry Lime.” For both Gatsby and Harry, they can pretend with their friends (who both have an inclination to be part of someone else’s story rather than their own) that they’re optimistic, charming businessmen, the same as they ever were. Perhaps fittingly, the ending for both men is very much the same.


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