There are few people out there with the nerve to claim that The Third Man is a bad film. But there are also far too many who rush too far the other way, and claim that it is perfect beyond compare. For all the virtues of Carol Reed's film, there is much about The Third Man which is loose, muddled or incoherent. Indeed it is a classic example of a film which is judged more by its reputation than its actual structure or content. More than 60 years on it's still a frustrating experience, and though an ultimately decent affair it is high time its shortcomings were brought into the open.
For its first hour, The Third Man is a potentially enthralling and atmospheric crime drama which is undermined by a series of creative mistakes. The first and most obvious problem is the soundtrack, provided by the acclaimed zither player Anton Karas. If Reed had used his compositions sparingly, this could have been an effective way of setting the scene, an intelligent means to take the audience into the cultural heart of post-war Vienna. Instead it is plastered over nearly every scene, undercutting some of the most dramatic moments and becoming steadily more irritating as the film rolls on.
Up until the arrival of Orson Welles, The Third Man seems very unsure as to what kind of storyline it wants to follow. At the centre of it is the story about Holly Martins looking for Harry Lime, questioning all the people who saw 'the accident' and extracting information. The plot twists in classic noir style, and our protagonist is typically downbeat, and when the film is focussing on the central premise (finding 'the third man') it feels thrilling and intimidating, as the military and public begin to obstruct Martins' investigations.
The problem is that this attractive central story is competing for screen time with a number of sub-plots, which are either unnecessary or distracting. The entire subplot about Martins' lecture to the literary club is overdone: it serves its initial purpose of getting him to stay in Vienna, but after that it isn't sure how to resolve itself. Martins' lecture, in which he is dismissed and humiliated, feels like a lift from The 39 Steps, only here the humour which results is severely out of kiltre.
The romantic relationship between Martins and Anna also feels half-hearted and repetitive. Graham Greene's dialogue is generally good but he struggles to move the relationship on from the initially functional exchanges. There isn't the same kind of suppressed sexual magnetism that there is in Chinatown, nor does our heroine display quite the same strength of character. Towards the end, when Martins begins bringing her flowers and she begins to grow angry at the mention of Harry's name, Anna's emotional state and true intentions become clear, but the film could have benefited from hurrying this development along.
For all that has just been said, The Third Man is visually effective even when its character arcs begin to flounder. Robert Krasker's cinematography is very atmospheric. During the night shoots in both Vienna and Shepperton, the cobbled streets were sprayed with water to reflect more of the artificial light, and throughout the use of exaggerated shadows is very effective. These expressionistic gestures make the story edgier, recalling the work of Franz Kafka or Edvard Munch.
You also have to admire The Third Man simply for how cynical it is. Being a film noir, we don't expect the protagonist to be all bright-eyed and chirpy. But The Third Man does manage to capture the sense of post-war malaise, and in the case of Harry Lime take it to dangerous extremes. The film's repeated shots of rubble, dirty apartments and people sweeping are interesting, showing the day-to-day consequences of 'liberation' from Nazism. The slow speed at which life returns to normality is not something which comforts Vienna's inhabitants. Either it dulls them into resigned silence, or it serves as a golden opportunity for personal gain at the expense of others.
For all its interesting gestures, the film only really picks up when Orson Welles arrives on screen. It is quite simply impossible to make Welles appear uncharismatic, and from the second his face is illuminated he is the only one you are interested in. His presence, both physical and intellectual, hangs over The Third Man, to the point at which you start looking for moments in which he might have snuck behind the camera (though sadly, any rumours of Welles 'co-directing' are untrue).
The character of Harry Lime is fascinating because he is completely amoral and unrepentant. He doesn't care about other people, treating his best friend as a potential business partner and referring to people as 'little dots'. And yet, in spite of all this, we find ourselves caring for him. We are charmed by his playfulness, warmed by his blustering smile, and even saddened when Martins has to shoot him. Just like The Silence of the Lambs, the greatest strength of the film is its demonstration of how human, and rational, and likeable evil can be, and as a result how prone we are to either ignoring or accepting it.
All of which raises the question: if Welles is so effective, why not bring him on sooner? Why is he merely talked about for so long, when surely it would be more effective for him to sporadically appear from the shadows?
To understand the implications of Welles' entrance, we have to jump forward thirty years to Alien and the nerve-jangling tension achieved by Ridley Scott. In Alien we are briefly introduced to the evil at the beginning, and the tension mounts because of the subsequent lack of information. We never know where it will strike again, or when, or how, or why all of this is happening; add in the claustrophobic setting of the Nostromo and you have everything you need for sheer, unrelenting terror. The Third Man has the same lack of escape route, but it relies too much on reputation building and talking up the character, rather than attempting anything more adventurous.
The best scene in the entire film is the sewer chase, because it contains none of the flaws which scuppered the earlier scenes. Here there is no annoying music, no drawn-out dialogue, no inappropriate comedy and no rambling sub-plots. Instead we have nail-biting suspense aggravated by the realistic sounds of water, footsteps and echoed shouting; sections of this chase would make Hitchcock proud. One special moment comes when Lime is standing at the mouth of the tunnels, all of which are echoing with sounds of police and dogs, and he cannot decide where to run. The image of his hands reaching up through the grill is brilliant, and his entire death sequence is very moving.
The Third Man is a film of two halves. The first half ties itself in knots, complicating an interesting crime story with unnecessary entanglements with peripheral characters. Once Welles arrives, however, all is well and the film does what it was always meant to do, exploring the dark underbelly of post-war life. For every moment which delights you, whether in the chase sequence or the speech in the fairground, the prevailing feeling is one of frustration: for every second Welles is on screen, you can't help wishing you'd seen him earlier. For all its faults, The Third Man is still a decent film, but it is not the finest work of either Welles or Reed. It's an interesting chapter in both their careers, but it cannot come close to their defining works.