“I never knew the old Vienna before the War” – The Third Man and coming to terms with the post-war world

As The Third Man turns 70, we delve into what it tells us about Britain and the building of a new global epoch

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Cities rarely look as good as they do in the movies. The intoxicating power of the urban sprawl has been a focus of film classics since the dawn of cinema, from the Berlin underworld in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to the scum-ridden streets of New York in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece of British film noir, The Third Man, is similarly entwined with the city of Vienna. The ruined boulevards and subterranean passages of the Austrian capital provide a perfectly murky stage for a cynical tale of crime and corruption during the birth of the Cold War.

It’s a war-torn town with dark cobbled streets and racketeers lurking inside every shadow. The palpable crookedness of the environment is even felt in Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with dutch angles and extreme closeups fostering a constant sense of unease – accompanied, of course, by a timelessly evocative zither score from Anton Karas.

But The Third Man‘s Vienna is so much more than an atmospheric setting; it captures a changing world in a period of political and economic turmoil. The film arrived only a few months after the Berlin airlift; a time when the allied coalition which had defeated the Nazis was beginning to break apart. An uneasy detente had given way to open animosity between the Communist Eastern bloc and the capitalist West. As an occupied city in the former Third Reich, Vienna was at an epicentre of these tensions, and as such it provided a perfect microcosm of this post-war global order which was still in its infancy.

The importance of the film’s volatile political context is foregrounded in a brilliantly sardonic opening narration, provided by director Carol Reed himself. In character as a seedy black-market racketeer, Reed explains how Vienna had been divided into various sectors under the control of American, Soviet, British and French forces respectively. “What a hope they had,” he comments, “all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” The Third Man, then, is not just the story of a city, but of a whole new world which had been born from the ashes of the Second World War.

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Amid this unfamiliar geopolitical landscape, the film seems preoccupied with the role of Britain on the world stage, and how this once-mighty nation might come to terms with the newly emergent supremacy of the United States and the Soviet Union. Acclaimed novelist Graham Greene adapted the screenplay of The Third Man from his own novella, but made one crucial change from page to screen. His characters Holly Martins and Harry Lime, respectively the protagonist and the villain of the drama, were recast as Americans rather than Britons. This change had obvious commercial implications for a British film pitching itself to the US box-office, but placing two American characters so centrally within a European story also reflected the growing dominance of the US in world affairs.

Indeed, Holly Martins is not just an American citizen, but a writer of the most American of genres, the Western. As he barges brashly into the Viennese underworld with all the tact of a gunslinger, it falls to the chief British authority in Vienna, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard ), to act as his guide. Against the determination of the American, however, Calloway can only stand by and feebly offer advice as Martins wades further and further out of his depth. 

At the same time as Calloway’s sincere guidance is largely disregarded by the visiting American, the British officer also finds himself overridden by his Russian counterparts. The Soviet wing of Vienna’s international police are eager to deport Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czechoslovak national living under false documents, and Calloway’s protests in her defence go largely unheeded. Finding himself subject to the whim of more powerful and well-resourced rivals, Calloway’s predicament would have been familiar to British authorities across the globe at the time of the film’s release. Throughout the late 1940s, an exhausted British Empire had acquiesced to Soviet demands in Eastern Europe, granted independence to former colonies in India, Burma, and Ceylon, and indebted itself to the United States via the Marshall Plan. If Harry Lime is the third man of the film’s title, then Britain had become the third power, dwarfed by the economic and military might of the planet’s chief capitalist and communist states.

Despite this diminished influence, the British retain the moral prerogative in the world of The Third Man. Calloway is a stern but ultimately good-natured figure, upholding the rule of law but making exceptions wherever there is the imperative to do so, as evidenced in his kind treatment of Anna. Likewise, his Cockney enforcer, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), is an affable personality – a keen fan of Martins’ westerns and always courteous to Anna, even when duty requires him to raid her property. These values may appear out of step with the world around them, but the rarity of such ethical integrity is exactly what makes it seem so valuable. This is contrasted with the cocky self-assurance of Holly Martins, the nihilistic greed of Harry Lime, or the inhumane bureaucracy of Soviet liaison officer, Brodsky. Here, Greene’s script may be suggesting a new role for Britain within a world of ideologically opposed superpowers; neither as bold as the Americans nor as efficient as the Russians, but nevertheless a voice for decency and reason in a polarised landscape. 

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Carol Reed wasn’t the only film-maker to be questioning Britain’s identity in the immediate post-war era. Powell and Pressburger’s majestic 1946 fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, focused on the Anglo-American partnership which had emerged as one of the defining traits of the post-war West. But where that film had ended on an optimistic note of cooperation and cross-cultural romance, The Third Man strikes an altogether more bitter tone. At the film’s conclusion, Martins chooses to ignore Calloway’s parting advice to “be sensible”, and he is left alone in a foreign city with his love unrequited and a far bleaker future than when he had arrived. Perhaps it’s a suitable metaphor for the disappointment of the European post-war project, which had seen the rapid disintegration of the new United Nations into two opposed monoliths on either side of an iron curtain.

If this is a disheartening picture, it represents only the opening salvo of a Cold War which would persist for another four decades and trigger a series of protracted proxy conflicts around the globe. The role that Britain would play in this tumult was still unclear, and in many ways it remains so. As the The Third Man celebrates its seventieth birthday and the UK faces another crossroads in its relationship with the world, the film’s image of a belittled yet outward-looking nation within a chaotic world remains familiar.