On watching The Third Man I was surprised to find the most cliché of stories hitting hard. From the first scene we are introduced to one and then another of our standard detective story cast: a friendly policeman and an efficiently ruthless one, a helpful frightened servant, a sinister foreigner (somehow more foreign then all the others, and, of course, a baron), and, after the others have made their appearances, the love interest first seen on stage and then accosted in her dressing room. Throughout the introduction, Holly, our idealistic American protagonist, is driven by his own zither soundtrack from one encounter to the next at a pace so rapid that he even outpaces the scene setup crew and exposes the movie’s first secret: Holly, a writer of pulp westerns, is furiously creating in his mind a story to explain everything around himself, and it nearly works. But he didn’t account for Graham Greene, who screen wrote The Third Man.
But even in Holly’s near-miss the movie works, it works even before Graham Greene breaks down the dime-store façade with true moral dilemmas and the emergence of subtle temptations. How?
Films can embrace and explain what, if unembraced, would be stylistic flaws. This is most readily done by bringing the art of the whole into the story itself somehow, as we saw in The Battle of Algiers. Perhaps musicals are a good example of this: the sorts of characters we are introduced to are the type who break into wild song without provocation, and it does not, then, seem so strange that these same people will live somewhat wild lives—you may think they are a bunch of clowns, but you do not feel unduly manipulated by the director. There is a danger here since there is a great correlation between your appreciation of the music and your acceptance of the characters: if you find the music in Phantom of the Opera or Les Choiristes over the top and sentimental, then you will find the characters the same, but if you love the music you will love the movies. Maybe this effect should be called the breaking of walls one through three, when the machinations are embraced in some way by the protagonists.
Unique, perhaps, among these strange films, is the Third Man since it takes the machination itself as a theme. It embraces the dime store masquerade through the workings of Holly, a writer who just off the train sees and is convinced of foul play before he ought to be. Midway through the film, however, the façade is blown by the all too dangerous man in the doorway, and raw post-war Vienna dominates the screen. The transition is rough, although playfully presented by Orson Welles as something ordinary. And this presentation of the crude life of the Vienna black-market as acceptable is not unreasonable, not to Holly at least, for in the alluring veneer of Holly’s façade there is a flaw lurking, and waiting in this weakness is the great temptation of the film. A temptation which, perhaps, Holly is not directly tempted by, but which is in some way artistically tempting and a natural companion to the way Holly lives his life. The temptation is presented under the semblance of money-wise crime, not the ideals Holly operates under, but nonetheless serves as a vehicle of dehumanization with the same destination.