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Influence of Film Noir on Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the Emergence of a More Concerted International-oriented British Cinema in the Late 1940s

November 10, 2008 | By

Film Noir is primarily used to describe a particular cinematic style associated with Hollywood crime dramas (between the 1940s and late 1950s) which find their roots in German expressionism.

Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) was a British-American co-production between Alexander Korda’s London Films and Hollywood’s independent David O. Selznick. Adapted from author Graham Greene’s novella of the same name, the film is considered a Noir classic. It is set in the ruins of Vienna in the aftermath of the bombing of World War II that the opening lines of the film summarise for its audience: “I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm; to me it is simply a city of undignified ruins which turned that February into great glaciers of snow and ice”. This is the image that sticks with its audience not only throughout the film, but it is this image of ‘desolation’ (Wollen, 2003. pg 17) that The Third Man is most remembered for. It also boasts of a host of experienced actors from both sides of the Atlantic and a soundtrack which etches itself beautifully in the memory of its audience and becomes almost inseparable from the film as its cinematography. This essay will try to analyse the influence the genre of Film Noir has on some elements of this film and the ways in which this film represents the intensive international-orientation nature of British Cinema at this point in time.

Influence of film noir on Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the emergence of a more concerted international-oriented British cinema in the late 1940s

Film Noir is primarily used to describe a particular cinematic style associated with Hollywood crime dramas (between the 1940s and late 1950s) which find their roots in German expressionism. It encompasses several sub-genres such as melodrama, thrillers and hard-boiled detective stories in its storylines. The lighting is usually low-key, high contrast, with the emphasis on shadows, odd angles and claustrophobic spaces that project the mind set of the typically confused protagonist. Although, Noir stylistics is classically associated with American films, towards the end of the war and post-war, with themes of corruption, ambiguous morality, deception and intermingling sub-plots, The Third Man emerged as one of the more prominent ‘British’ Noirs, that were said to have the “classic thematic, iconographic and stylistic characteristics of the American Noirs” (Street, 72).

From the beginning then, the film establishes its Noir qualities in its setting and cinematography. As mentioned before, the city of Vienna, to the protagonist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American and therefore an outsider, is rather confusing and hostile. In fact, Spicer argues that this is typical of Noir style which emphasises on the “city as a trap” and a labyrinth which is “dark, confusing and hostile, filled with dead ends, and above all threatening” (Spicer, 2002. pg 67). It is no surprise that Holly as an outsider is often at unease not only by the situation that he has fallen into but also the highly intimidating (to him) Vienna, which often leads him to dead ends as he searches for the truth about the life and death Harry Lime (Orson Welles), his childhood friend. Robert Kraser, the film’s cinematographer, was encouraged to use “extensive back-lighting and extreme wide angle lenses that distorted the buildings, and emphasised the wet cobblestone streets, which together with Reed’s frequently tilted compositions, created a nightmare city” (Spicer, 1997. pg 188) for Holly that added to his character’s “ethical indeterminacy” (Miller, 2003. pg 66). This high contrast low key black and white visual style, underpins the sense of an atmosphere of turmoil with the extensive use of shadows, Dutch angles and its “deeply diagonal night streets” (Murphy, 2001. pg 144). More often than not, the shots of the breathtaking architecture of Vienna’s buildings are followed by disturbing shots of immense rubble that is the result of the bombing and helps keep that sense of confusion and instability running throughout the film. In typical Noir style, the setting and cinematography makes its audience believe that nothing is what it seems, that like the once beautiful Vienna that now lies in ruins, the morals of people are uncertain and corrupt, like the Viennese sewers, the dirt runs deep and this is further emphasised when the voice-over finishes his narration while introducing ‘present day Vienna’ and its post-war racketeering rage.

Influence of film noir on Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the emergence of a more concerted international-oriented British cinema in the late 1940s

Not to be outdone, Anton Karas’ famous zither score, that starts right from the opening credits adds to the ambiguousness of this dual nature of the post-war Viennese society. It runs throughout the film, in a jaunty, almost lively pace which attaches a sense of irony to the mood already set up by the opening montage, “its vibrations tangling and unwinding our nerves, teasing and haunting us like a ghostly hurdy-gurdy” (Murphy, 2001. pg 144). Like the society, it represents the dual nature of this city—the corruption underneath the liveliness. “It is music for bourgeois leisure, but something else can be heard in it too—unease, tension, some middle European density” (White, 2003. pg 8). There seems to be an intertwining of the unique cheer that is produced by the zither and the impending gloominess of the plot that has quite a staggering effect on its audience, every time the film is viewed (White, 2003. pg 33). It emphasises the subversive unease, uncertainty and corruption that dominates the society at this time.

Adding to this complexity of the Noir plot, are the main characters of The Third Man. Holly Martins played by Joseph Cotton is as typical emotionally flawed noir protagonist, an innocent American who becomes caught up in the deceit and complexity of the plot, “refusing to betray his old friend” (Murphy, 2001. pg 144) till the end when his ‘morality’ obliges him to fulfil his duty and help in the capture of Harry Lime. The viewer follows Holly’s journey through Vienna, as confused by the unravelling of the plot. His character displays what Greene might have thought of as ‘American assumptions of morality’ (White, 2003. pg 59) and like him the “non-German speaking spectator is at times made to feel like a tourist, Holly or a disgruntled foreign military policeman” (White, 2003. pg 30) adding to the tension of the plot. But the drawback in his character is that he lacks the savviness of a typical noir protagonist, who though confused gives the impression that he could survive the dark and complex world that he is entangled in. He lacks insight into the intrigues that permeates Vienna at this time. The Viennese, who have witnessed the destruction of war, “hide their despair in cynicism” (White, 2003. pg 59) and immorality. Even when they don’t completely reject Holly, they “at least snigger(ed) or frown(ed) at him, with all his breezy assertiveness and hasty judgements” (White, 2003. pg 59).

Influence of film noir on Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the emergence of a more concerted international-oriented British cinema in the late 1940s

The only character who seems truly at home in this corrupt environment seems to be the Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), a racketeer par excellence, who uses the city’s sewers to travel around Vienna. Orson Welles celebrated depiction of Harry Lime as a charismatic, cynical and unremorseful villain “takes the image of spiv to extremes: his crime (racketeering diluted penicillin) is far more horrendous than flogging silk stockings or watches on the black market…” (Street, 1997. pg71). He dominates the film, though he hardly has screen time before the film is half way through. He is a typical noir villain, who has been engulfed by materialistic corruption. He justifies this to Holly, without remorse, on the famous scene in the Ferris wheel, explaining that it is really easy to commit these crimes when feeling distanced from it (White, 2003. pg 71).

The smaller roles are played by talented professionals unknown to the American public which allows the narrative to proceed without distracting from the main characters. On screen, they remain reserved in their mannerisms and don’t betray too many emotions which adds to the depiction of the sense that the Viennese “have had to learn to watch their words” (White, 2003. pg 29). This further adds to the typical complexity of the noir style.

Influence of film noir on Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the emergence of a more concerted international-oriented British cinema in the late 1940s

In addition to being a classic Film Noir, The Third Man has far reaching international influence. Murphy (2001) argues that it shows a flowering of sophisticated European influence on British cinema. But it would be unjust to label a British film considering that Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton (American actors) played the central characters and that the film was co produced by Selznick. Selznick’s involvement left an indelible impression on the American audience: for the American release of the film, he removed the original voice-over that was provided by Carol Reed himself, and had Cotton re-record it, trying to remove the direct interaction of a racketeer with the audiences who were already on edge because of the war. Greene’s initial choice of name for Holly character was rejected by Cotton because ‘Rollo’ had connotations of homosexuality to American ears, further tailoring the screenplay for the international audience. Also, having the two main characters as Americans, it was the one of the first steps that portrays the US’ gaining power moving in on Western Europe that had retained much of its historic significance till the war (Miller, 2003. pg 82). The genre itself is typically American, making it easier for the consumers of Hollywood’s products to relate to the gritty plot. Karas’ zither music generated excitement that can be compared to big Hollywood releases with audiences around Europe. The Scottish audiences lined up for over three hours “in a freezing Scottish winter before the screening began…” (Drazin, 1999. pg 134). Vienna itself was occupied by four different forces: British, American, French and Russian, the centre being patrolled by all the four, making it perfect setting for a film trying to breakout of the stereotypical British cinema onto an international stage. It also added an element of exoticism to the film along with the zither. Not surprisingly though, it received most adverse criticism in Vienna because the Austrian Tourist Commission feared that the film would instil a negative image of Vienna in audiences overseas that they were trying to discourage (Drazin, 1999. pg 134). Lastly, the multinational cast added to the international taste of The Third Man with actors of several nationalities: the main American protagonist and villain, Italian female lead (Alida Valli), British actors (Trevor Howard as Officer Calloway) and assorted Austrian actors in supporting roles.

Influence of film noir on Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the emergence of a more concerted international-oriented British cinema in the late 1940s

It is worth mentioning that the film was expected to have such a far reaching influences that Selznick feared that it would be considered as Communist propaganda in the more sensitive European countries if the famous lines about Switzerland and the ‘cuckoo clock’ read by Welles were left in the film, while the Communists dismissed it as Western propaganda (Drazin, 1999. pg 135). In conclusion, while being essentially a British film with a strong Noir stylistic influence, The Third Man was very international oriented and wanted (in fact received) the kind of attention that is usually received by a product of Hollywood. Like the memorable ending of this film, the memorable the status of the film as a classic will be forever part of international and Film Noir history.


Drazin, Charles. In Search of The Third Man. Methuen Publishing Ltd. London: 1999

Miller, Toby. Spyscreen: Espionage on Film & TV from the 1930s to the 1960s. Oxford University Press. New York: 2003

Murphy, Robert. British Cinema Book. 2nd ed. British Film Institute. London: 2001

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Pearson Education Ltd. Essex: 2002

Street, Sarah. British National Cinema. Routledge. London: 1997

White, Rob. The Third Man. British Film Institute. London: 2003

Wollen, Peter. ‘The Vienna Project’. Sight and Sound. July 2003

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Sananda Chatterji, born in Kolkata, raised in New Delhi and settled in NZ since 2003 with family. She studied Film/TV/Media Studies and Marketing at University of Auckland, NZ. Her interests vary from lazing in front of the tele to theatre production.
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