In Imogen Sara Smith’s “World Weary” article regarding Noir City, San Francisco’s annual film noir festival, she concludes an overview of some of the festival’s motion pictures (and a few more) with the following observation on the final scene in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.”
Holly earns no respect, even from himself, by siding with Major Calloway, whose cynicism is the flip side of Lime’s: “death’s at the bottom of everything,” he shrugs, and “the world doesn’t make any heroes.” But it is Anna (Alida Valli), Lime’s former lover and one of Europe’s “displaced persons,” who drives the final stake through Holly’s American optimism. In a shot that seems to last forever, the woman without a country or a future walks up a long, straight avenue of pollarded trees. Finally she passes out of sight, leaving Holly stranded in the wintry sun and graveyard quiet, “deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.”
The “final stake through Holly’s American optimism” is the most immediate impression left on viewers at the conclusion of a movie that began with the arrival of an American writer of pulp Westerns. Of course, in that light, it’s no wonder “The Third Man” was named the best motion picture of the 20th century by the British Film Institute.
So I appreciate Smith’s point on Holly’s sympathy and alliance with Maj. Calloway, which leads to that final understated confrontation between Holly and Lime in the sewer. That Maj. Calloway’s cynicism is only a few steps removed from Lime’s is another point well taken.
Especially since it’s easy to see “The Third Man” as the deflation of the American Western and the social mindset informed by it though Reed’s movie also levels the good vs. evil notions typed in the American Western.
When Holly (Joseph Cotten) arrives, he’s incapable of understanding the foreign culture—really, a cross section of several cultures—in Vienna but he insists on investigating and “helping.”
Reed conveys this visually for much of the movie’s length with Holly watching from windows and balconies a few floors above ground the characters below walk through the streets of Vienna. One out of many readings might suggest this is Holly, a writer, seeing characters as pawns in a story or maybe it’s the bias Smith kindly refers to above as “American optimism.”
Even in the pursuit of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) through shadows in the city’s streets or later in the sewer where our point of view would normally be on a level plane, Reed’s use of Dutch angles gives us the sense that our perspective is still skewed—everything and everyone for Holly is a sign of the criminal and suspicious.
The visual key culminates in Holly and Lime’s ride on Vienna’s giant Ferris wheel with the cab doors open and the people below as tiny specks—maybe Holly and Lime are not so different after all, they’re both in danger of falling.
During the ending’s sewer chase, Lime tries to climb out of the sewer when Holly shoots and kills him (is this Holly and Lime’s knowing nod an agreement with the latter’s moral relativism?).
And it’s only after this flattening of Holly’s honorable American stature that the camera, and Holly’s POV, returns to a level plane as in the film’s last shot.
But things develop here as Anna passes by Holly and recedes into the distance as another tiny dot, a moral isolationist indictment of man out of his depth.
Post scriptum: the rest of Smith’s article is well worth reading if you want to revisit many well-known film noir pictures within a socio-historical context.