I take a look at one of the best entries into the film noir genre. See. This. Movie.
SUMMARY (Spoilers for a movie that is 70 years old)
In post-WWII Vienna, the city has become divided by the four powers currently occupying it: The Americans, the French, the British, and the Soviets. American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has been invited to the city by his old friend Harry Lime, who promised him a job opportunity. Unfortunately, when Martins arrives, he finds out that Lime is dead, having just recently been killed in a car accident. At Lime’s funeral, Martins meets two British policemen, Paine and Calloway (Bernard Lee and Trevor Howard), who tell him that Lime was a criminal, though Martins accuses them of just trying to pin unsolved crimes on a dead man. The Brits try to get Martins out of Vienna, but he is invited to stay in the city by a local book club.
Martins goes to meet a friend of Lime’s, Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), who claims that he and another friend named Popescu (Siegfried Breuer) were present at Lime’s death. However, Kurtz’s account, and Popescu’s, are both contradicted by Lime’s porter, Karl (Paul Hörbiger), who says that he saw a third man near Lime’s body after the accident. Lime’s doctor, Winkel (Erich Ponto), says he only saw two men, but cryptically refuses to say more about the accident. Meanwhile, Martins meets with Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who is being investigated by the police. In the process, they find out that she has a fake passport, because she’s really Soviet. Martins starts to become attracted to her.
The porter offers to give Martins more information, but he’s murdered before he can. The crowd believes that Martins murdered him and chases after him. Martins escapes the crowd and ends up at the book club where he is completely unprepared to make a presentation, but when confronted by Popescu, tells him that he’s writing a story called “The Third Man,” about the events. Popescu advises him to stick to fiction and sends two goons after Martins. Martins escapes and sees the British police again. Martins demands they investigate Lime’s murder, but the police reveal that Lime was stealing penicillin and diluting it to re-sell, resulting in a large number of deaths from the tainted medicine. Martins refuses to believe it, but they show him an immense amount of evidence until he is convinced.
Martins goes to visit Anna before she is sent to the Soviet sector, where she reveals that she was told about Lime’s crimes but refuses to believe them. Leaving her apartment, Anna’s cat goes to someone standing in the shadows. Martins, drunk, yells at the figure, assuming it’s one of the locals, only for a light to reveal that it is Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Lime runs away and escapes into the sewer. The police excavate Lime’s coffin and find the hospital orderly who stole the penicillin for Lime. Martins meets with Lime the next day on a Ferris wheel. Lime threatens Martins, but when Martins reveals the police know Lime’s alive, Lime offers Martins a job and leaves. Calloway asks Martins to help catch Lime, and he agrees if they help Anna leave the city without having to go back to the USSR. Anna, however, refuses to leave, believing that Martins is betraying Lime. She warns Lime of the police, so Martins and the officers give chase through the sewers, eventually cornering Lime, who is shot by Calloway and wounded. Lime tries to crawl out, but cannot make it, so he asks Martins to kill him. Martins does. At Lime’s second funeral, Martins risks missing his flight out of Vienna to meet with Anna, but she ignores him completely.
The prompt for this film was “Film with Favorite Last Scene.” There are a number of films I love with iconic last scenes, ranging from Anthony Perkins looking into the camera in Psycho, to the unforgettable fist-pumping of The Breakfast Club, to Casablanca’s start of a beautiful friendship. However, when I thought about it, I had to pick this film, because the last scene is so simple, but so subversive at the same time.
This film is a masterpiece of noir because throughout the first two acts nothing in it ever quite fits. Everything in the film is designed to throw you off just a little bit, from the heavy use of Dutch angles giving the movie an off-kilter look to the zither music that populates the film to the characters. The dialogue was written by Brighton Rock author Graham Greene, adding to its quick and pointed nature. The Baron and the Doctor, who are apparently a couple, both come off as deceptive. If you do read it as them being together romantically, then it adds a layer as to WHY they might seem like they’re trying to hide something, aside from just their work with Lime. The only people who seem to be conveying everything they know are the Porter and Anna’s landlady, both of whom don’t really speak English at all. In fact, much of the film relies on the characters speaking German without translation, leaving the audience, and Martins, completely oblivious to what’s being said. So, you have odd angles, odd sounds, odd performances, and an inability to understand much of the dialogue, all of which starts to correct itself once Harry Lime is revealed and the entire plot is now more clear.
Orson Welles, a huge name at the time of this movie’s premiere, is not featured in the first two acts of this movie. However, despite his limited screen time, he is the perfect villain. He is threatening, he’s always in control, but moreover, he’s very appealing. He takes Martins up on a Ferris wheel and asks him if he’d care if any of the “dots,” the people below, disappeared in exchange for $20,000. “Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.” Moreover, Welles improvised some of the dialogue, including his famous line “in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, 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 that exact justification for horror and violence that makes him such a perfect character.
Throughout the movie, we are shown how much Anna loved Harry Lime. She keeps mementos of him everywhere, she gets sad at the times when he usually would come by, she drinks heavily as she thinks about his passing, and she basically treats his room as a shrine. When told of Lime’s crimes, she doesn’t seem to ever consider whether he’s guilty. Moreover, she might just not care one way or the other. She loves him and she wants to be with him. We’re shown that Lime doesn’t really care about her, something he makes clear to Martins during their conversation when he shows no concern for her deportation. It might be that he’s hiding it a bit, since he nonchalantly draws her name in a window, but Lime’s willingness to let her think he’s dead seems to indicate he doesn’t care. When Martins tries to help Anna, she instead rejects him as a traitor and mocks him. She loves Harry, she doesn’t really care if Harry loves her.
In the final scene of the film, we see Martins getting ready to finally leave the city. Everything is done. However, when he sees Anna, he can’t help but try to talk with her. He wants to connect with her, the way he hoped he had before. But the fact was that she never really saw him that way, as evidenced by the fact that the one time she flirted with him, she called him “Harry.” So, when Martins gets out, we are forced to watch Anna walk directly towards the camera, forcefully, for over a minute, before she just walks past Martins without acknowledging him. Martins, shocked for a moment, then lights a cigarette, realizing his mistake.
Possibly the best thing about this is that it’s the absolute right thing to happen in the scene, but it’s still a subversion. People expect a happy ending for the good guy. Martins worked to help Anna out even when it was risking his own ability to leave the country. At the end, he gives up his other chance to leave (which was tough in 1949) to try and meet with her. Calloway even looks at the scene and drives off, not waiting to see how it plays out, supposedly believing that it will take time. Yet, at the end, she never was interested in him, and nothing about him killing the love of her life has changed that, so she just ignores him. There’s no yelling or screaming at him turning into a kiss, no, it’s just complete disdain. It’s made only the better because we’re forced to wait so long as she walks straight towards the camera in order to find out.
Overall, this is a fantastic movie. Spend the money. See the film.
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