Eat Your Vegetables: "The Third Man" (Reed, 1949)

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Cultural Vegetable of the Week: The Third Man
Vegetable Equivalent: Potatoes or some other easily obtained vegetable that can be distilled for the black market
Nutritional Value: A cinematographically gorgeous glimpse of post-war life and American disillusionment
Recommended Serving Size: In one sitting in Vienna itself, if you can manage it; if not, then via the gorgeous Criterion Collection print

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) writes dime store westerns. In The Third Man (a title he suggests for his new novel), he finds himself, by turns, the hero and villain in another kind of Old West: the post-war ruins of Vienna, Austria. This west is not a promising frontier; rather it is literally the “old” west that World War II destroyed. It is the city turned into a desert. Martins stumbles through the ruins of a culture that makes the settings of his novels seem strikingly new.

The Third Man gives us two versions of America. One is the hapless Holly, a naïve tourist who has just enough conscience to feel bad after he’s bungled the job. The other is the titular third man, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), capitalism’s dark avatar. Lime sees Vienna’s war-torn environs as a market ripe for profit, and he makes his cash by stealing, diluting, and then reselling the city’s penicillin supply. It’s telling that the film was written and directed by Brits (Graham Greene and Carol Martin, respectively), and the chief British character, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), comes out the best.

The war’s effects can be seen throughout the city: piles of rubble, an empty amusement park, military guards that stand at every street corner, and disabled vagrants littered across the city’s cobblestone. Until now, Martins has remained blissfully aloof, having managed to avoid fighting in the war. On its surface, Vienna tries to pretend like nothing ever happened. The same cultural events — operettas at the local theater, old dependable saloons — hint at Vienna’s pre-war glory. But the cinematography registers how phony this is. Canted frames pop up all over the place. We rarely get level shots of anyone, and the city only looks its best at night, with the water glistening on its stone streets and mysterious shoes echoing down the cavernous alleys. The city, and moral bearing of the film, looks superficially sound, like the hotel Martins stays at. But as we later discover, the back has been blown out of the whole operation.

The most famous bit of dialogue in the film is Harry Lime’s kiss-off to Holly:

“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.”

Welles delivers the lines with gusto and just a tad too much haste. The easily-persuaded Martins stands silently, unable to respond. The argument is an interesting microcosm of both Lime’s problems and Martins’ gullibility. Okay, so war generates artistic progress while peace encourages men to make dawdles. But does that mean Lime is Michelangelo? Hardly. He’s a selfish profiteer who leaves nothing but mangled bodies in his wake. He volunteered to act as patron for Martins, who is evidently an artistic lightweight. This world war produces the Louis L’Amour-esque The Oklahoma Kid, not the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile, Martins wants to negotiate a personal settlement that won’t cost him anything. He will sell Harry out for a woman’s sake without reckoning that his betrayal will completely poison the woman’s affection for him. Martins tries to find a middle ground between Italy and Switzerland, but the war has exposed everyone’s neutrality as a farce. No one is innocent.

The film’s final shot jars against what has been mostly urban mise-en-scene and encapsulates the film’s main themes. The camera holds a long shot of a long road stretching from the graveyard back to town. Bare trees line both sides of the frame while leaves flitter across the screen. Martins smokes in the foreground, waiting for Anna (performed by the incredibly moving Valli), Harry’s girl and the woman Martins has fallen for. Without even batting an eyelash, Anna walks past Martins and out of the frame. Martins is alone. He has taken the life of his friend. His love remains unrequited. He has missed his plane back to America. Martins, the dime-store novelist, discovers that the world doesn’t suffer from a lack of villains. In fact, it has too many.

About Jonathan Sircy

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