The Third Man and the power of uncertainty: Stunt Writing day 13

As a fitting finale to my noir class, my husband and I went to see The Third Man in an actual movie theater last night.

We’d never been to The Ken before, so we were curious to find out what it looked like on the inside. As for me, I was wondering what a west coast art house theater would be like, having enjoyed my experiences in NYC at theaters like the Angelika and Film Forum. (Incidentally, I’m super stoked that Angelika is finally bringing its own brand of theatrical entertainment to San Diego, even though I’m less-than-thrilled with the theater’s physical location northeast of La Jolla. Bring that culture downtown!)

The Ken was definitely old-school. The box office was closed, so we purchased tickets inside from the man behind the concessions counter. The decadent, greasy smell of buttered popcorn filled the air, and even though neither my husband nor I typically eat popcorn at the movies, we both wondered afterwards if we should’ve bought a bag.

The seats were definitely a throwback to a bygone era. No stadium seating here, with its comfortable, plush chairs that include a headrest. Proving that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, these narrow, rather hard seats could use one of those stadium cushions meant for attendance at ball games. Perhaps the concession stand could stock up with Ken logo-emblazoned options, for those of us used to a little more butt padding?

At any rate, it was great to see this flick on the big screen. I’ve seen it before, of course, but there’s always something unique about seeing a movie in a theater, larger than life. Orson Welles rather demands such treatment, don’t you think?


I’m still pondering elements of the film, wondering in particular why it ends the way it does. Many noir flicks have unsatisfactory endings, and The Third Man‘s seems particularly puzzling, if only because I can’t quite figure it out.

Now for the requisite ***SPOILERS AHEAD!*** warning for those who have somehow managed to escape watching this infamous film…


So, here’s my puzzle: I get Anna. I completely understand her motives. She loves Harry Lime, even though he’s an utter villain. She’s even told Holly Martins this very thing, in several different ways throughout the film. “A person doesn’t change because you find out more,” she says of Harry, when Holly comes to her apartment to say goodbye. Both Anna and Holly now know about Harry’s penicillin scam, and have seen the gruesome results. But she is unwavering in her devotion to the man she knew and loved. It’s a strange thing to say I get that, because I’d really like to condemn Anna for it, but at least she’s honest with herself and with Holly. She has never been mixed up in Harry’s schemes, except for her fake passport, or so she claims. Maybe she’s lying – she is an actress, after all – but it doesn’t seem like it. After all, why wouldn’t she run from the police when they come to cart her off to Russia?

She doesn’t want any part of Holly’s betrayal of Harry, and tells him this in the café where Holly is lying in wait to turn Harry over to the police. She accuses him of being a police informant – which is exactly what he is – and tells him how much she hates him.

So why in the name of all that makes sense would Holly try to win this woman over at the end of the film?!

Holly Martins, bumbling detective, still seems to think he’s a cowboy in the Old West, and that his heroic pose will win over this hardened woman. He leans up against that cart full of firewood and strikes a match to light his cigarette. Anna walks past him like he’s not even there. She doesn’t even glance sidelong in his direction, and she certainly doesn’t look back. The End.

You knew it was coming, but yet it still makes no damn sense. Because Anna is acting perfectly within her character by ignoring Holly (hell, she’s accidentally called him “Harry” for most of the film, and still sticks to her guns concerning her hatred of the man), but Holly is trying to be some kind of Hollywood hero and sweep her off her feet. Hello? The woman has dissed you at every turn! Did you not get the memo?

But I guess, typing it out that way, it kind of makes perfect sense. Because Holly does think he’s some kind of a Hollywood hero. He’s a hack writer, and it shows in his actions. He does exactly what any of his characters would do in that situation. They’d try to force a romance. They’d think that standing in a pose would make a woman drop everything and rush into their arms for a sweet embrace.

Idiotic! Has any real woman ever acted this way? Particularly when they’ve told their pursuer time and again to bugger off?

Anna is true to herself, and for that I admire her. I don’t share her views – either that a person doesn’t change because you find out more, or that Harry Lime was a loveable guy – but I admire the way she sticks to her beliefs. And I wonder what will become of her, because Holly is still trying to help her, but she doesn’t want his help. She’s undoubtedly going to come to a bad end, like everyone in noir films does. But that’s what she wants.

So I guess the real puzzle here is… why does Holly think he wants to be with Anna?

Holly is clearly a naïve character, someone who thinks he can solve the world’s problems with a little American optimism and ingenuity. But of course he can’t, because there are people like Harry Lime in the world, who view people as nothing more than “dots” to be picked off if it turns a profit. How do you combat true evil? And how do you center yourself in a world where the people you hold dear turn out to be people like Harry?

Holly deals with these kinds of problems by drinking, which only makes him slower and stupider when more problems arise. What kind of a hero is that? And why does he think he can protect Anna, anyway? She’s clearly more street smart than he is. Vienna is her city, not his. She wants to be with someone like Harry, no matter how terrible a person he really is. So what does Holly think he’s got to offer her?

I guess, ultimately, Holly thinks that he can change Anna, that he can make her love him. And that’s a very strange way to think about relationships, which is why I’m not getting it. If someone doesn’t already love you – or at least like you – then what do you think you’re going to do? Pester them until they change their minds? That does seem to be typical of old Hollywood notions, though it doesn’t square with any notion of romance I believe in. You can’t harass someone into loving you, after all, and usually we refer to those kinds of people as stalkers.

Anyway, I still find the ending very strange, because Holly seems to think of himself as this noble character, even though he basically discovers he was brought to Vienna under false pretenses by someone involved in truly heinous crimes, presumably to participate in such crimes until he himself became disposable. Why, then, continue to paint handing Harry over to the authorities as a traitorous act? The man was killing people for money! Holly is clearly not cut from such cloth, and yet he tells Callahan Calloway he can’t just throw aside 20 years of friendship.

Why not? Wouldn’t that be the noble thing to do?

So the real mystery here is Holly Martins. Why is he so loyal to a man like Harry Lime? Why does he think he’s going to get Lime’s girl in the end? Is it an act of revenge? (He says Harry stole his girl, once upon a time, when shooting the breeze with Anna.) Is he just that naïve? Maybe he’s just trying to start a new life for himself because he’s got nothing to go back to in the US? I don’t know. Maybe there’s no way to know. And so in the end we’re left with uncertainty.

And the uncertainty is what makes this film great, isn’t it? Because with all of the off-balance shots, all of the strangely happy zither music, all of the veiled threats, and all of the conspiracies floating around in this story, it’s that feeling that everything you know is wrong. Your loyalty, your love, your basic ideas about human nature. The Third Man suggests it’s about discovering who this third man really is… but when we find out, that solves nothing. We are still adrift on a sea of uncertainties, trying to make sense of the senseless.

Sometimes, we just have to surrender to the abyss, don’t we?