Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Third Man
Harry Lime. Harry Lime. Harry Lime. The name is spoken so frequently in Carol Reed's The Third Man that it becomes a mantra, a way of signifying the continuing importance of a man whose absence defines the film and drives its plot. The war is over, and as the pseudo-documentary introduction describes it, the city of Vienna is in turmoil, bombed-out and divided, split into sectors by the victorious Allied powers (just getting ready for the colder war to follow) and rife with corruption and black market dealings. The pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in the city at the behest of his friend Harry, who has offered him a job, but virtually the first thing that Holly learns when he arrives in Vienna is that Harry is dead, the victim of a strangely suspicious traffic accident. Harry's left behind Anna (Alida Valli), the beautiful girl who loves him, plus a string of business associates who seem very shady and evasive, and a dogged police inspector (Trevor Howard) whose interest in Harry's illegal activities hasn't quite faded now that the man himself is beyond his jurisdiction.
So Holly — who Anna instinctively and repeatedly calls Harry, evidence of Harry's ubiquity and also a suggestion that she's already beginning to think of this newcomer as a possible replacement — stumbles into a shadowy, foggy Vienna where sinister dealings are obviously happening down every dark alley and in every night club. The people Holly meets, his friend Harry's former associates, like the solicitous "baron" Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), radiate menace and sinister intentions, drawling out seemingly banal dialogue that barely disguises the unspoken threats and insinuations hiding just behind their friendly surfaces. It's instantly obvious that something strange surrounds Harry's mysterious death, something much more sinister than the traffic accident that everyone insists it was, and Holly becomes particularly obsessed with discovering the identity of an unknown "third man" who carried his friend's body away from the accident along with the baron and his fellow conspirator Popescu (Siegfried Breuer).
Interestingly, this mystery, which gives the film its title, ultimately seems incidental to what's really going on here, and isn't even resolved explicitly within the film. The film's first half is driven by mystery and investigation, but the specifics of this mystery don't seem nearly as important as the general sense of tension and intrigue generated by Holly's attempts to discover the truth. The script, adapted by Graham Greene from his own novel, crackles with suggestive, potent dialogue, particularly in the exchanges between the mourning Anna and Holly, who is clearly falling in love with his dead friend's girlfriend even as he probes deeper and deeper into the sordid truth about Harry Lime. Although Harry himself is the central, unseen presence for much of the movie, Anna and Holly (with his strange name so resonant with Harry's) get most of the screen time, dealing with Harry's absence and trying to make sense of life now that he's gone. In one great scene, a tearful Anna asks Holly to tell her things about Harry when he was younger, and Holly tells a series of incomplete, faltering stories that amount to moments and glimpses rather than full scenes in themselves. It seems even when he was alive, Harry was a somewhat enigmatic figure, difficult to understand or describe. (Much like the "third man," who is described by the one person who saw him as entirely normal and non-descript.)
Of course, in the movie's final third it turns out that everything is not as Holly and Anna had thought, and after being an unseen presence/absence for over an hour, Harry Lime himself finally makes his first appearance, incarnated in the smug smirk and cheery eyes of Orson Welles. Harry's first appearance is iconic and unforgettable, first as a shadow in the night, a pair of shoes standing in the shade of a doorway, the rest of his body vanishing into the surrounding shadows. Then a light comes on and illuminates his face, and there's that playful smile, those twinkling eyes, devilish and rakish, a sinister face hovering in the darkness. Having an actor as powerful and iconic as Welles play Harry, and holding back his first appearance for so long, really intensifies the effect. The audience is as stunned as Holly is, in a way, because just as Holly is shocked to find his friend alive, the audience, who might have suspected as much, is simply shocked by the impact of Welles' arrival and the oversized charm that he brings to Harry.
That's even truer in the subsequent scene, later in the film, where Harry finally gets his first lines — and is revealed not as the loving boyfriend idealized by Anna or the fun, steadfast friend described by Holly, but an amoral sociopath who willingly snuffs out lives just to make some money. Harry feels no guilt that the black market medication he was selling killed many and drove others mad. As he and Holly ride a ferris wheel, he looks down and speaks as though he's a god, as though other people are simply abstract dots to him, their lives and deaths of no import to his schemes. Harry is a real product of the war, a lowlife echo of the Nazi indifference to life and the god-like delusions that drive some men to believe their desires are more important than the very lives of others. Harry is a demon, a charming demon, and the sinister vibe of his friends is echoed in his own demeanor. His first conversation with Holly is infused with just-barely-unspoken threats and telling looks. He maintains a casual air as he opens the ferris wheel's door and tells his good friend that he has a gun, that he could eliminate him if he wanted to. And then, when Holly tells Harry that the police have dug up the latter's grave and found the man buried inside it — essentially telling Harry that his problems wouldn't end by getting rid of Holly — Harry's demeanor changes entirely, and he once again becomes solicitous and charming, the menace in his voice replaced by syrupy good cheer and friendly offers. He's good old Harry again, the merry prankster Holly had earlier described in those fragmentary stories from the good old days.
The film climaxes with a crawl through the sewers, in which the witty dialogue and insinuations are replaced by a nearly dialogue-free chase sequence in which Harry is pursued by an army of police with dogs and flashlights, with Holly accompanying them. The sewer sequence is a marvel of noir style, all striking angles and shadows, occasionally pierced by the blinding white light of the pursuers. Harry's face, now not so dashingly confident, is striped by shadows in the dark of the sewer, his eyes wide with fear as he runs this way and that, hemmed in and cut off everywhere, attempting with mounting desperation to find a way out. His earlier smirk is replaced by a grimace of terror. In the sequence's most unforgettable image, a wounded, crawling Harry reaches for a sewer grating, and Reed cuts away to the street above, where Harry's fingers stick up through the grate, waving around like stalks of grass in the wind, which whistles by on the soundtrack, the eerie only noise. It's a haunting ending for a legend who was disappointingly revealed as just another corrupted man, a sad echo of the war's evils.