The film’s title, The Third Man, announces that it’s about triangulation. Shot in brilliant film noir black and white, and set on location in the ruined post-war city of Vienna, the film explores and unfolds mediated relations and on several levels. Most obviously are the interpersonal relations between the film’s main characters a woman’s (Alida Valli, played by Anna Schmidt) two incomplete paramours, specifically: one actual but absent Harry Lime (Orson Welles), the other a present but only potential lover, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). But the film also explores the indirect and shady economic relations of the black market, and the equally gray morality that seems a necessary means of coping with relations steered from the straight and narrow.
Any one of these three themes could make a movie. But the Third Man’s brilliance is in its success at playing out its themes using each mode of cinematic expression (story, image, sound). Much of the film is shot with dutch angles (an angled camera, which puts the frame askew). Rollo Martins, a straight up American visiting old friend Harry LIme (whom we don’t find till the end of the film), is framed straight up and down. But as he begins to encounter an underground economy (and the film’s conclusion is indeed shot in the city’s drainage system) of barter, favors, bribes and corruption, the frame tilts. Scenes shot in alley ways also tell of perilous and shadowy pastimes and night times. Scenes featuring our heroine frame her, literally, in windows and doors (though she’s not the only one who’s framed).
The moral choices our hero faces can only bend if he is to find his friend or get the girl (it’s not clear which it will be, but by convention he oughtn’t get either until he makes the right choice, that is to say, morally right–the right kind of choice according to the film). While Valli refuses to compromise her principles, even at the risk of deportation to the Russian sector (she’s Czech), Martins makes trades to keep her in Vienna. And Martins, rather than allow Valli contact with Lime (her lover presumed dead), keeps them apart in order to save her for himself. What Martins tells her, and Lime, is never clearly, nor completely true.
The world of film noir is a world in which choices are hazy and relations, being alliances, are subject to change. But our lead actors survive temptations to uphold the genre conventions. It’s not till the 50’s that heroes, sheriffs, cops, and detectives become morally ambiguous (or ambivalent: Eastwood was not a Wayne). The shift takes interesting shape in gangster films with themes of betrayal. Gangster films began as cops-and-robbers films, in which the contrast of moral choices was portrayed in the high contrast of black and white. But the gang, and a mafia in particular, is a family. The crime of family betrayal (whether to the cops, or to another gang) replaces the black and white of moral distinctions to become the source of tension in films like the Godfather, Casino, and Donnie Brasco.
The Third Man’s theme of triangulation is where the psychology of indirect relations really comes into the limelight. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze observes that the logic of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense is not the whodunnit of a crime, but its “for whom was it done.” He reveals plot points to the camera (and thus the audience) that are concealed from the film’s characters. In fact the audience sometimes knows who has committed the crime from the very beginning; what’s not known is the characters’ relations to the crime, or its perpetrators, and this unsettles their relations to one another. Their relations are then developed according to the film’s logical puzzle (as opposed to their emotional or real relations to one another).
In the Third Man the position of third is not fixed but circulates from a dead man referred to as the “third man,” to Harry Lime, and rests with Rollo Martins. All relations are not equal, and in the Third Man, Martins, Lime, and Valli must choose their relationships to one another on the basis of muddled events, a shadowy underworld’s downward gravitational pull, obfuscating facts and the incomplete observations of witnesses–honest and dishonest alike. Direct relations have difficulty flourishing in a world of indirect and convenient allegiances. But the romantic story-line requires the directness of communication (affection expects honesty and sincerity). If Martins’ courtship of Valli is to succeed, he must leave his triangulations (he does things for her but says they were for Lime) and draw a straight and direct line to her. As the film nears its incredible showdown–a standout moment in film-making on its own–the audience knows Martins is facing an almost impossible choice as a friend (to LIme) and lover (not yet but hoping to become for Valli). He must reveal the truth about Lime to the police if he wants Valli to see him. But he must take his action without the supporting angles of a triangle (angled shots of a dutch camera = the geometry of triangles?). It’s a decision he can only take alone. And this is how it plays out. He takes the gun in his own hands and without the cover of the police in the waterways with him, confronts Lime for his immorality. He pulls the trigger, his act resounding with an echo against concrete tunnel walls, and in the backlit white of a dark passage way, Martins, now looking much a Western hero, walks his straight line back to the world above.
We do not know if he gets the girl. The film begins with Martins noticing Valli, who is walking a straight line directly down the center of a straight road. He meets her again on the same road, after the same burial (this time it is Lime’s body in the ground, put to rest where he belongs), and she doesn’t look his way. The audience, however, knows that he is now on the same path, and that his choices have made him a candidate, at least, for a position in a romantic partnership.
A superb film.