Academic: “The Third Man”

This was a paper for Eng122 – Themed Composition 2 (Detective Fiction) while I was at The College of Lake County. The assignment was to watch a noir film and do an analysis in the noir aspects and tropes of the film. 

The Third Man, A Noir Paragon

The Third Man hits many of the film noir tropes throughout it’s run time. It opens with a non-specific narrator in the third person, framing the city of Vienna in it’s post-war state, and explaining to the audience in brief about the smuggling trade within the bombed out city. The urban setting is blended with an almost rural setting with so many open areas, hills of debris, and of course the underground sewers most notably in the climactic final sewer chase scenes. The lighting and shadows throughout the film put an emphasis on paranoia and suspicion which fits in this wayward city, policed by soldiers from four different countries, all barely speaking any of one another’s language.

The film is framed as an unindentified narrator relating this story about Holly Martins to someone else, but outside of this framing structure no flashbacks occur. There are a few ultra-brief annecdotes by Holly about Harry Lime (including one that foreshadows the plot twist of the film), but nothing substantial enough to explain Holly’s fierce loyalty to Harry.

Within the first few scenes we are treated to one of many dutch angle shots, when the porter at the late Harry Lime’s apartment building informs our protaganist that he’s 10 minutes late… for the wake. The tilted angle gives us perspective on Mr. Martins’ reaction. His whole world is on tilt right now. He left the states, on a gifted ticket from Lime to come and work for him. And now Lime is dead, and Martins has no place to stay and no job. In this same scene we see one of our first long shadows, which play out along boulevards and apartment buildings like ominous apparitions throughout the film.

Other dutch angle shots include Martins’ meeting with Baron Kurtz for the first time, thw two of them sit down, and the camera is slightly skewed to the side. It jumps back and forth over the shoulders of the two characters, allowing for a complete focus on the face of whichever is speaking at the time. These shots also work as a close-up on Kurtz, allowing us to see his creased face, his almost popping out eyes, and his unsettling smile. We can feel just by watching this man talk that he is up to something, that he knows something, and that in all gods honest truth shouldn’t be trusted as far as he can be thrown.

Martins’ asks about Lime’s death and the supposed racket he was involved in, and Kurtz offers advice only on Lime’s death, and brushes off the racketeering like it was jaywalking. “Everyone in Vienna is. We all sell cigarettes and that kind of thing. I tell you, I’ve done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war. Once when I was hard up, I sold some tires on the black market, I wonder what my father would have said.” But it is clear from Kurtz’s facial expressions that he isn’t really phased, looking down at his hands and smiling. Smuggling and racketeering are simply a part of the life in Vienna.

We learned prior to this encounter with Baron Kurtz from Major Calloway, who gives Martins a ride into town and a drink after find the funeral in a daze, that Lime was a terrible person, but not specifically why. When Martins laments Lime’s death, “It’s a shame” Calloway asks” What?” Martins elaborates “Him dying like that” and without a moments hesitation Calloway replies “Best thing that ever happened to him”. Martins’ doesn’t believe the accusations of being a racketeer, and goes on the defensive for his recently departed friend and starts picking at and insulting the major. We see a noir trope bloom in front of us with this interaction with Martins declaring “I never did like policemen. I have to call them sheriff’s.” and continues his antagonization with “Pin it on a dead man, some petty racket, with gasoline or something. Just like a cop.” His inflection and tone change the three letter word into an accusation, a cuss word, and a slur. “Why don’t you catch a few murderers for a change.” Later while Calloway is searching Ann Schmidt’s room Martins’ continues needling him. “Oh, pinning things on girls now?” and “I suppose it wouldn’t interest you that Harry Lime was murdered. You’re too busy, you haven’t even bothered to get the complete evidence. There was a third man there. I suppose that doesn’t sound peculiar to you” To which Calloway retorts “I’m not interested  in whether a rackateer like Lime was killed by his friends or by an accident. The only important thing is that he is dead.” Realizing how insensitive that is to the friend of the departed, he apologizes but Martins’ continues on the offensive “Tactful too, aren’t we Callahan”

Seeking out Limes now ex-girlfriend, Martins’ meets the films femme fatale, Anna Schmidt. She is reluctant to help Martins’ but goes along anyways to speak with the porter and talks at length with Martins’. While Anna herself isn’t a player in the smuggling game, she does indirectly benefit from Harry Lime’s affections through a masterfully forged passport that keeps her from being deported to the Russian sector of Vienna, that is of course until the Police come calling to search her place. She quite clearly misses Lime, but she doesn’t want to think about him anymore. This is painted perfectly when she states after being asked by Martins’ if she was in love with Lime “I don’t know. How can you know a thing like that afterwards. I don’t know anything anymore, except I want to be dead too.” We are even told, albeit subtly, that Anna is genuine in her sadness. Martins’ asks her about a play she is learning “Is it comedy or tragedy?” She replies earnestly, “Comedy, I don’t play Tragedy”. She doesn’t pantomime despair on the stage, there is too much of it in real life already.  And she is a femme fatale, not in that she is a killer herself, but that she is worth killing for, at least in Martins’ eyes. After a Ferris Wheel ride full of threats and argument Martins’ returns to the police and decides to sell out an old friend to keep Anna from the Russians. And she will have none of it. “Look at yourself, they have a name for faces like that.” She remains loyal to her image of Lime, even when it is clearly illustrated that Lime didn’t think she was worth sacrificing for.

Martins’ is wholly aware of the accusations that Lime was under, but doesn’t believe it. What he does instantly believe though is that a third man was present at Harry Lime’s death, and instantly calls into question the conflicting reports from Baron Kurtz and the porter about whether or not Harry was alive after being stuck, or instantly killed by the truck. Martins’ assumes that Baron Kurtz, as well as the Physician who declared Lime dead, Dr. Winkle, as well as Mr. Popesco are involved in Lime’s death, redoubled by their hesitation to discuss the matter. He begins investigating the murder, to prove his friend a victim and maybe redeem him a little. But instead the whole ball of yarn starts to unravel.

Everyone wants Martins’ to drop his investigation. The police don’t want him in the way, Ms. Schmidt wants to let go of Harry. Kurtz, Winkle, and Popesco try to placate him saying that Lime was worried about him. But he perseveres, and keeps digging. He can feel that he is being played by these people, and becomes a bit paranoid especially after the porter he had been speaking with is found dead after Popesco found out the old man was clueing in Martins’. The old man goes to meet the conspirators on a bridge, and the Zither music soundtrack intensifies the suspense with its’ sharp pluckings. The old man stares in horror after he makes an arrangement with Martins’. Arriving too late, a crowd is lead to believe that Martins’ may be the murderer, suggested by a shrill child shrieking German, who had previously seen the porter and Martins’ arguing. Fleeing the mob of angry citizens, Martins and Schmidt hide in a theater before parting ways.

Returning to the hotel, Martins wants a cab to take him to the police. But there is one already waiting for him, and this is a cab ride that very nearly pushes him over the edge. When the hack driver tears through the streets of Vienna tires screeching and pedestrians looking on in suspicion, Martin’s starts shouting questions “Were you ordered to kill me?” It almost comes across as sarcasm, but betrays Martin’s concern for his situation especially after fleeing an angry mob. The ride ends, the driver gets out, and Martins’ nearly tumbles out of the car and tries to take up a defensive stance, ready for a fight when he is in for so much worse, a public appearance he is wholly unprepared for. At the end of this embarrassing scene Popesco appears with a few ribbing questions, encouraging the ersatz investigator to buzz off, head on home to America and go back to writing. Popesco opens with “Is Mr. Martins engaged with a new book?” “Yes, It’s called A Third Man,” Martins’ retorts, “It’s a murder story, I’ve just started on it. It’s based on fact” “You are doing something pretty dangerous this time, mixing fact and fiction.” Martins picks up on the threat “Should I make it all fact then?” “Why No, Mr. Martins, I say stick to fiction, straight fiction” “I’m too far along the book” “Haven’t you ever scrapped a book Mr. Martins?” “Never.” “Pity,” Popesco ends the session of verbal barbs and subtle threats and walks off to meet with his two trench coated goons who moments later give chase to Martins’ across the bombed out streets and urban ruins of the city. Wide angle shots of the streets and narrow gangways and tunnels give an ominous feeling of dread as Martins’ flees.

This same dread coils around the neck of the villainous Harry Lime during the films climax as he scurries through the sewers of Vienna trying to elude the international police force and his former friend Martins, who has learned the truth of Limes racket and seen first hand the lives he has ruined with his diluted penicillin formula he was peddling to the ill and infirm of the wounded city. In the end of the chase Lime kills Officer Paine, a kindly but loyal minion of Calloways and an avid fan of Martins’ novels. Martins takes up the fallen officers gun and pursue the wounded and crawling Lime. Calloway howls down the sewers to show shoot Lime. Martins and Lime look at each other, and Lime nods to him, a tiny, almost imperceptible acknowledgment of his own fate. A gesture that I personally missed the first two times I viewed the film. He accepts that he can’t escape this time. That it’s all over, and that he can at least count on his friend, the man who risked his life trying to find out who murdered him to put him down swiftly. A gunshot echoes through the sewers and Martins walks back toward Calloway, silhouetted by sewer steam cutting a black outline in the dark tunnels, like a grim reaper in a hat and trench coat, gripping the revolver as his proxy scythe in his right hand.

In the end, Martins knows exactly who killed Lime, he saves Anna from the Russians, but she won’t have a thing to do with him, walking past him on the cemetery road as he waits for her. She keeps walking, goes right past the camera and leaves a long shot of Martins on that now empty road, lighting a cigarette, alone. Pyrrhic victory at its finest.


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