The first great unproduced Australian screenplay I ever read after settling on these shores contained a brilliant reference to the ferris wheel scene from The Third Man. To my shock, the writer had never heard of the movie. I confess I momentarily doubted my decision to settle in this country. (By then I had already figured out that Australian television rates among the very worst and great beers are prohibitively expensive here). On the positive side, I am happy to report that this writer has become one of my best friends and his aversion from the classics hasn't stopped him from writing brilliant drama.
FERRIS WHEEL SCENE
If not every soul, at least every self-respecting movie buff knows this movie - and this scene. Harry Lime’s monologue, written by Graham Greene - screenwriter and author of the eponymous book - is among the sharpest and most cynical in cinema history. It ends like this: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo - Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance... In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce?...The cuckoo clock.” It’s great, yet this scene is not my favorite. Our movie moment occurs a few minutes earlier in the film.
NOIR - OR NOT?
Let’s first debunk a couple of mainstream misconceptions. Orson Welles co-stars but didn’t direct; Carol Reed did. When you watch The Third Man, it won’t surprise you that some people take the term ‘noir’ a tad too literal. Robert Krasker’s cinematography is dark, with lots of shadows and black. It’s gorgeous but I don’t think this is a true noir film. The bad guy does not get away with murder and the last image leaves a suggestion of hope for Holly’s relationship with Anna, a femme who is not truly fatale. Perhaps not noir, but it isn't just a mystery story either.
A PURE MYTH
Don’t you love it when you watch a movie you think you know - and then you discover the key to what the film ultimately means to you? This happened a few years ago when I watched Jaws again, a movie less about the fear of water than the fear of responsibility. Re-viewing the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink showed me this is a powerful Faust metaphor. When I watched The Third Man again recently, I found that the film goes deeper than most reviewers have dug. On the surface, this is the story of a man (Holly) who goes to visit his friend (Harry) in Berlin right after the war but learns he’s just died in an accident. I believe this movie is really about a goody two-shoes - a lame writer who hangs with even more boring literati - who confronts his wild, dark side. His good friend turns out to have a massive, horrible secret, so the journey is really one into his own suppressed ‘shadow side’. In the process of visually descending into the underworld of his own unconscious, Holly changes. He learns another side of the world and takes from this exactly what he needs: a woman. It’s a clear example of the Greek thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
THE MOMENT: SHADOW IN THE SHADOW
In the same way Anna lures Holly into the world of Harry, the cat at the mid point will guide Holly to exactly where Harry is standing. Surrounded by black, like a full moon, we see the smirking face of Harry Lime for the first time. This image is to my taste the most magnificent of the whole movie and one of the greatest images in cinema. It’s the purest metaphor of a hero finding his shadow ... in the shadow.