Thoughts on The Third Man

I watched The Third Man for the first time recently and thought it was good but nothing to write home about. Spoilers ahead.

The thing about the movie that bothered me the most was the moral question posed in the movie: whether to turn Harry over to the policemen for selling diluted penicillin in the black market. To me, it was entirely obvious that what Harry was doing was beyond reprehensible. He stole penicillin from hospitals that desperately needed it and diluted it to sell on the black market, knowing the diluted version would be harmful to and could kill people who used it. To me, the question of whether Holly Martins and Anna should turn over their friend to the police was self-evident. And yet, Holly at first refused to help Major Calloway and it wasn’t until Calloway took Holly to see the children who became brain-damaged from the diluted penicillin that Holly changed his mind. Anna refused to cooperate in any way and hated Holly for helping the police. Their sense of loyalty in spite of Harry’s horrific actions was so appalling, maybe even immoral, to me. But after reading other people’s opinions online, I changed my mind.

The movie was released right after WWII and the people living in that time had a completely different life experience and outlook. It was heavily implied in the movie that Anna had to do some unspeakable things to survive the war. To survive, they all had to do morally questionable things whether it be dealing in the black market or other some other illegal activity. Group loyalty was a prerequisite for survival. Cynicism and distrust of authority were rampant. And in this environment, Harry was Anna’s savior, the person who helped her obtain a forged passport so that she wouldn’t have to go back to the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, the morality is no longer as clear. A millennial like me will never fully understand what it was like to live during that time, especially in war-torn Vienna. I can read the history and understand the facts, but at a deeper emotional level, it might be impossible for me to fully grasp it, and maybe that’s why The Third Man didn’t resonate as much with me. I had the same experience watching Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago. After all, what movies do better than any other medium is to reach us at an emotional level. Certain movies, like Casablanca, are timeless because the emotions evoked come from experiences everyone has had. Other movies, especially those from different time periods, might no longer be as affecting because the experiences of the modern audience is fundamentally different. Still, I loved the sewer scene when Holly shoots Harry. I interpreted Harry’s look at Holly as imploring Holly to shoot him so that he wouldn’t have to go to jail and face the police. Even at the end, after Holly helped the police chase Harry down, he still couldn’t help but oblige Harry’s request. And so, he shoots Harry. One last bit of loyalty.

There were many things I did really like about The Third Man, and they tend to be the things other people like, starting with Harry’s famous speech. “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.” That’s one hell of a speech. Holly’s character as a representation of American naivety was also great. He was innocent and had such a desire to help, but he clearly didn’t understand the local language and culture. He made things worse for a lot of people such as the porter who was murdered after Holly kept pushing him for more information. This is a lesson that America is still learning to this day. Then there was the ending. It’s the same shot as the beginning. Holly and Calloway drive past Anna, but this time Holly gets off the car and waits for Anna. We expect our protagonist to get the girl, that Holly and Anna will reconcile their difference of opinion and live happily ever after. Anna walks closer and closer and then right past him without a glance. Holly lights a cigarette, resigned to the fact that she’ll never forgive him. What an ending. Harry’s reveal was also pretty good. Maybe it’s because I saw it coming, or because I’ve seen so many plot twists, but I didn’t think it was anything special.

All in all, it was a good movie, but to me, not a great one. Movies ultimately speak to our life experiences and my life has been so different from the people at that time that The Third Man didn’t resonate with me on the visceral emotional level that other movies have. Still, I’d recommend watching and forming your own opinions.