The Third Man separates from several typical themes we’ve seen in the noir genre thus far—largely the anti-American setting and the lack of a traditional femme fatale. These differences center a critical analysis of the work: Holly Martins as an atypical protagonist, a protagonist who himself is left in the dark.
Set in Vienna, much of the film takes place in German, a language most Americans do not understand and feel an apprehension towards in a post-WWII world. We in the audience have no one to trust as the plots forms around us with side characters continually speaking this cacophonous language. Both the audience and Martins must depend on strange translators’ honesty to follow the plot of the film. Critically too then, Martins is unaware of the literal role he plays in many of these German scenes—in one standout scene, he speaks German lines as Anna practices for her next performance. For much of the film, Martins is playing a part he fails to understand.
While in most film noirs, the protagonist is physically left in the dark and shrouded in shadows, Martins is literally left in the dark in The Third Man. Detached from typical noir themes, Martins does not unearth the mystery of the film—instead, it is told to him by the international police and later Lime himself.
The Third Man is further divorced from traditional noir themes by the presence of a child and child-like symbols. A child lives in Harry Lime’s building—periodically appearing with his bouncy ball, often during climatic scenes. Carol Reed connects this child and Martins: unable to speak German or trust anyone around him, Martins—and thus the audience—is made to be a child. Confused, without answers, surrounded by shouting adults, we feel like children desperate for an answer. This connection is only furthered by Martins and Lime’s meeting place at the end of the film: a Ferris wheel.
This link between Martins and the child turns The Third Man into a coming-of-a-story. Like so many children and teenagers, Martins discovers just how dark and dangerous the world is in The Third Man. He learns that the adults around him cannot be trusted, that evils really do exist, and that maybe, these evils exist within himself too.
Brown argues–quite obviously–that the tone of the great world war and its subsequent guilt looms over the film. In his discussion of guilt, I was reminded of the classic Nazi defense, “we were just taking orders,” before Brown himself connects the defense and Lime’s own racket. He explains that “his [Lime’s] subordinates felt almost respectable in taking and following orders, and if there was guilt, the leaders bore the guilt.” The Third Man forces the audience to confront the guilt–or lack thereof–of the man who was giving those orders. It then further suggests that the Third Man is the Every Man: it could be you, Jane Doe, or anyone.
Brown’s discussion of Vienna’s position during and after the war was also compelling. He gives historical context on the failure to resolve (formally) any Austrian guilt in their relationship to The Third Reich and their treatment of Jews within Vienna; he describes Vienna’s present as “guilty calm.” The very idea that one could remove the guilt of such atrocities suddenly seems absurd in the light of the film and Brown’s words. How does a memorial or museum or plaque bring back the dots that forever disappeared because of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. The film tells us that it is impossible–this murky layer between guilt and innocence is forever a part of the human condition.