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by Carol Reed

In Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Vienna is represented with a double face that can be associated now with Holly Martins, now with Harry Lime. Martins’ Vienna is a “superficial” Vienna, where culture is ostentatious and where strangers, welcomed with cordiality, are constantly looked upon with suspicion. On the other hand, Lime’s Vienna is an underground Vienna, populated more by shadows than by light. The Vienna of lawlessness, of crime, the lesser-known Vienna, but, nevertheless, a more alive and pulsating Vienna.

When the city sleeps

It is no coincidence that the British director Carol Reed chose the city of Vienna as the setting for his film The Third Man (1949), the feature film that marked his definitive consecration as an internationally renowned filmmaker. It is no coincidence, because the capital city of Austria, which has always been a crossroads of many cultures – thanks also and above all to its particular geographical location and which in this particular context almost represents a sort of Babel tower – looks even more fragmented to us immediately after the end of the Second World War and, specifically, in 1946, the year in which Reed’s film is set, as well as the year immediately following the end of the war, when the Allies still occupied Austrian and German territories.

And so, in The Third Man, from the very beginning we are presented with a Vienna divided into four sections: one controlled by the Americans, one by the British, another by the French and, finally, the last by the Russians. A city within which even the Austrians seem no longer to recognise themselves and, at the same time, want to defend their space and national identity. Particularly significant in this regard are the figures of the elderly Viennese ladies, used to rail from their windows against anyone who might disturb the public peace, or, even better, that of the elderly doorman of the house in which Harry Lime (an incredibly charismatic Orson Welles with a strong stage presence) lived.

Yes, Harry Lime. Pages and pages would not be enough to give the idea of his unforgettable character. A figure, his, totally negative, dangerously dedicated to the illegal distribution of penicillin, with whom, nevertheless, the audience cannot help but empathise, precisely because of his strong appeal immediately emphasised when the actor makes his first entrance into the scene to the tune of the very famous Harry Lime’s Theme, a piece composed for zither by Anton Karas. A figure, his, which inevitably contrasts with the protagonist Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), a sort of anti-hero who, in his unwilling investigation into the mysterious death of his friend Lime, inevitably ends up proving to be a vile coward, a traitor to his own friend and who will soon end up losing even the woman he loves (an icy Alida Valli), in an emblematic final scene in which she walks along one of the avenues of Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (the central cemetery), walking straight at Martins’ presence, as if the man had become totally invisible.

And so the two characters, Holly Martins and Harry Lime, may represent, in a broad sense, precisely the double face of the city of Vienna in The Third Man. A city still with its hands dripping with blood, according to director Carol Reed, who, for his part, never misses an opportunity to attack Austrian society (“These Austrians will never learn to become good citizens,” says one of the characters involved in Lime’s mysterious disappearance) while criticising the hypocritical respectability that hides something extremely sinister behind the image of an impeccable city. In the same way, then, the Danube – which, in the feature film, with its numerous canals, acts as a watershed between the four sectors into which the city is divided – with its waters honoured by the Austrians since immemorial time, symbolically converges with nothing but the city’s sewage (the words of police inspector Calloway, “All this rubbish is destined to end up in the beautiful blue Danube” is, in this regard, very emblematic).

In any case, Vienna is represented here with a double face that can be associated, therefore, now with Martins, now with Lime. Martins’ Vienna, for example, is a “superficial” Vienna, a Vienna where culture is ostentatious, where strangers, although cordially welcomed, are, in fact, constantly looked upon with suspicion. Just as happened to Martins himself, when he was invited to a conference to present his mediocre novels. An extremely decadent Vienna, yes dark and disturbing, but also transmitting an unusual sense of agoraphobia, especially in the moments when the characters stand in huge squares, whose pavement looks so shiny precisely because of Reed’s decision, before each shot, to wet the streets.

On the other hand, we have Lime’s Vienna: an underground Vienna, populated more by shadows than by light. The Vienna of lawlessness, of crime, the lesser-known Vienna, but also a Vienna that is nevertheless more alive and pulsating than ever.

Such a split, therefore, cannot but provoke a deep sense of unease and confusion. Just as Carol Reed’s skilful direction communicates with the numerous oblique shots that often show us the characters from below (reminding us so much of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), with the menacing shadows cast on buildings lit by street lamps and, more generally, with the strong, very strong expressionist imprint of the entire work. An irremediable split, just like the one between the two old friends. A split that becomes, by right, the true co-protagonist of The Third Man.

Info: the page of The third Man on iMDb

Original title: The third Man
Directed by: Carol Reed
Country/year: Great Britain / 1949
Running time: 104’
Genre: thriller, noir
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Paul Hoerbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, Hedwig Bleibtreu
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Produced by: London Film Productions
Release date: 30/11/1949