Home » Film » Setting the Scene: The Opening of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Setting the Scene: The Opening of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

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Often, such as with the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the opening of a story tells much more key information than is immediately recognized by the observer of the work.  Graham Greene—an English novelist, playwright, literary critic, and former spy—wrote the screenplay (and accompanying novella) by establishing mood first and foremost.  This is a brief analysis of the opening to the film The Third Man. 



In Carol Reed’s 1949 film version of The Third Man, the director establishes the foreignness of the locale and the utter confusion of the protagonist, Holly Martins, in the opening sequence. There is considerable foreshadowing of the events to come, along with the dark mood of the story itself. The disorienting music, the unusual voice-over, and use of shadows set up the film for the dangerous and hidden mysteries of occupied Vienna, and eventually Harry Lime. By the time we get to the first scene of actual dialogue, Reed has established his film firmly into its setting and has informed the viewer of the type of adventure they are embarking on.

The music of the opening scene is strange to the ear of a British or American audience, as it is the sound of a zither, played by Anton Karas, a Viennese zitherist.  The sound was novel to the audiences of the film and it created quite a sensation on the popular music charts of the era.  According to The Continental Daily Mail, “Wherever the film is shown you can almost see the procession from cinema to gramophone shop. In its first three weeks sales have reached 100,000.”  The sound of “The Harry Lime Theme” topped the pop charts, a rare phenomenon of an instrumental film score.  Popularity aside, the music works in establishing the theme of a man in a foreign land, since the music is authentic Viennese and strange – at least when the film was first released – to Anglo ears, making them feel as out of place as Holly Martins.

What might be a minor detail to some modern viewers are the credits, shown on zither strings, letting audiences know that Orson Welles is starring in the picture.  The recognition is creating a mental note in the eyes of moviegoers to look for Welles, who will not appear in the film until much later.  If The Third Man were released today, Reed might have chosen to pay the Screen Actors’ Guild fines to keep Welles’ presence a surprise until his iconic entrance to the picture, much like David Fincher hid the identity of his serial killer in the thriller Seven because he believed that if the audience knew that Oscar-winner, Kevin Spacey, was in the film from the beginning, it would distract them from the story by looking for him.  As it is, I caught myself anticipating Welles’ entrance when I first saw the film over sixty years after its release.

The viewer is soon disoriented by the dark, snow covered architecture of Vienna and the voice-over of director Carol Reed explaining the black market.  There are images of smoke coming from buildings, a half-sunken boat in icy water, and men selling everything from matches to watches to shoes on the streets.  We’re shown that it’s cold and that it’s occupied by four different governments – the American, the British, the Russian, and the French – that aren’t the governments of the people of Austria.  This emphasizes the confusion of the bombed-out city by showing it’s being run by forces that don’t speak the same language as each other and very little of the language of the residents.  The city that Holly Martins enters is made of the rubble of a formerly beautiful place and is loaded with armed guards of assorted nationalities.  It’s one thing to be a fish out of water and another thing to be a small fish out of water.  In the DVD commentary, Steven Soderberg says that the original American version has the voice of Joseph Cotton (the actor playing Holly Martins) reading the voice over material, and he complained that it was confusing because it sounded like a man talking about himself in the third person, where the Carol Reed voiceover is the voice of a stranger.

Holly Martins looks dwarfed by the tall buildings as he was walking down the heavily policed streets, it shows how small and overwhelmed he is versus the city.  He walks right under a ladder on his way to Harry’s House and doesn’t even seem to notice.  For the audience, the ladder is almost a slash down the middle of the screen so it’s impossible for the viewer not to observe, and probably recognize the old superstition that it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, implying that this trip isn’t going to be smooth sailing for Holly Martins.

When he arrives to the door, a man shouts to him in German, and we the audience – under the statistical assumption that the audience is British or American – don’t understand what he is shouting.  The man is from a higher level, looking down at Martins, and even though the man is changing the light bulbs, because he is native to the area, he is given an air of superiority as the camera looks up to him and down to Martins.  The audience, too, has to struggle to understand the details of what this man is saying to him.  Appropriately, the details of Lime’s accident are confusing.  The audience learns with Martins and, as things are revealed to him, so are they revealed to the viewer.

At the funeral, it’s unclear whether or not Carol Reed wanted the set to appear as day or night – is it day-for-night or night-for-day?  It’s dark, but it’s also bright.  There is an interesting tonal ambiguity being displayed, such as the somber funeral situation that is being layered with the sound of the zither in a happy tune that sounds almost perfect for dancing.  Little is said at the funeral but so much is established.  Calloway is there, hanging back and observing in his leather jacket, gathering information.  Two men are suspicious of Martins and glare at him while whispering to each other.  Intrigue lies in every direction, and we’re informed that things are deeper than they seem, yet we don’t understand what is going on quite yet.  It is here that we first see the yet to be introduced Anna, who refuses to put dirt on Lime’s grave.  Martins does, foreshadowing the true fate of Harry Lime, which is completely unknown at this point in the film.

When looked at all together, this shows most of what the film is about.  All of the dots have been put into place and it’s now only a matter of connecting them, which will begin in the next scene, as Martins talks to Calloway, after his search for Lime has ended (or he believes it has ended) the movie begins to unravel the web that the opening sequence has placed before it.  Before the ending, Orson Welles will make what is possibly the grandest entry in film history, deliver an improvised, existentialist speech about the cuckoo clock, and Holly Martins will have all answers to his questions revealed.  Answers that were all foreshadowed by the opening of the film.

1 Comment

  1. Mr Geoffrey says:

    Terrific résumé, many thanks

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