The Third Man Brought the Vampire to Noir

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The Third Man Brought the Vampire to Noir

Vampires have taken many forms in contemporary culture: A cape-wearing, child-friendly Muppet; a telepathic high school student with sparkly skin; a quiet Iranian girl who walks home alone at night. Although vampire figures have existed in cultures all over the globe for almost as long as human beings have been around, our modern understanding of the classic monster is largely informed by the folklore of plague-ridden Eastern European communities during the 18th century. From mythological beings like the lugat and moroi, we get one of the most recognizable characteristics of the bloodsuckers: Vampires being undead creatures. This notion of the dead coming back to life to wreak havoc on the living is at the heart of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The iconic noir—widely considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made—features a number of eerie vampiristic elements, from its wicked antagonist to its haunting post-World War II Viennese setting.

The 1949 picture sprang to life during a dinner between British novelist Graham Greene and film producer Sir Alexander Korda. According to Greene’s second autobiography, Ways of Escape, Korda—after viewing the success of their previous collaboration, The Fallen Idol—asked the writer to pen a second screenplay for Reed, one that centered the Four-Power occupation of Vienna taking place at the time of their conversation. To his request, Greene responded with a cold open he had scribbled onto the back of an envelope years prior, but had never used:

I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.

After spending time on location in Vienna researching the city’s heavy military presence, Greene would merge his original idea with tales of true crime to create the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a man “born to be murdered.”

In The Third Man, Martins is an impecunious pulp novelist who arrives in Vienna to accept a job offer from his childhood classmate Harry Lime (Orson Welles). After a few cultural misunderstandings and some superstitious foreshadowing when Martins naively walks under a ladder, the American protagonist finds himself in attendance of his friend’s funeral. Convinced that there was foul play involved, he takes it upon himself to investigate Lime’s death and track down the mysterious “third man” who was present at the time of his fatal traffic accident. Martins’ amateur sleuthing makes him the target of suspicion and, as the film continues, puts him in hot water with just about everyone in the city, including British officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), Lime’s Viennese circle and his grieving lover Anna (Alida Valli). In a dramatic turn of events, Martins discovers a different side of his ex-school pal and has his childish beliefs on the nature of good and bad challenged.

While Cotten comfortably assumes the role of the noir detective, Welles fills that of a merciless vampire. This connection is most obvious from a narrative standpoint, as the mysterious Lime comes back from the dead almost midway through the 93-minute picture. Holly’s sighting of the deceased prompts British officers to exhume Lime’s casket and investigate the body. The scene is reminiscent of 18th century practices wherein villagers of rural Eastern European towns would dig up graves in order to inspect the corpses of those they suspected were vampires. To the fearful grave diggers, the natural postmortem state of the cadavers—long fingernails and hair, bloated stomachs, leakage of blood and other bodily fluids at the mouth—was explained as a sinister resurrection. To prevent the bodies from leaving their burial sites at night, these European “vampire hunters” would often maim the remains of believed-monsters by driving a stake through their heart, decapitating them or setting the bodies on fire. In The Third Man, the exhuming of Lime’s casket reveals a villager’s worst nightmare: The vampire has escaped death and is on the loose in their city.

In addition to his status as the undead, Lime possesses another vampiristic trait: An affinity for darkness and, conversely, a weakness for sunlight. This is illustrated during the film’s first chase sequences, where Lime is able to evade capture by exploiting the protections allotted by the night sky and the city’s vast underground sewage system. The darkness is his element. The darkness is his friend. Under the cloak of the night, Lime is faster, more cunning and quicker-witted than his childhood friend could ever be. This changes in the film’s iconic Wiener Riesenrad scene, where Holly encounters Harry for the first (and only) time during the day.

When Harry first emerges on the fairgrounds, he is depicted in an extreme wide shot with considerable distance from the camera. Physically, he isn’t the giant monster we met just nights before. Here, he’s a small blur on the screen, a weak, insignificant figure. As the two men mount the Ferris wheel, Reed opts for a Dutch angle, a motif he’s already used extensively throughout the film to establish Holly’s incoordination and confusion with his newfound setting. However, once the pair are inside the ride, the camera begins to unkink itself, swaying back and forth with the moving carriage—but never reaching a full Dutch. This momentary departure from the film’s already-established compositional style signifies a shift in power. Here, Lime no longer possesses the upper hand. No, not in the light of day. In fact, the sunlight and confined space make him vulnerable. He has nowhere to run and no shadows to hide within. For the first time, he is exposed, unguarded.

This scene also reveals the villain’s most compelling vampiristic attribute of all: His willingness to sustain himself by consuming the life force of other beings. It is on the wheel where Harry confesses his part in the racketeering scheme that has left many of the city’s inhabitants dead or mortally ill. He is part of a lethal criminal venture that steals bottles of penicillin from military hospitals, dilutes the medicine and then resells the poisonous concoction to the helpless for a profit. When asked about the people he has harmed, Lime turns his attention to the fairgoers below: “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving—forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” To his horror, this is Holly’s introduction to who his childhood friend really is: A remorseless monster who callously sucks the life from his victims.

This sucking of souls also extends to another one of the film’s characters—the city of Vienna itself. From its opening narration, the film establishes the city as a sort of undead character. Over images of black market goods being traded and a dead body floating in the Danube, a voice establishes the city’s devastating state: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamor and easy charm… Now the city is divided into four [military] zones… [and] bombed about a bit.”

This observation is reiterated throughout the entirety of the film as Reed favors locations that lay the city’s World War II scars bare, often setting chase sequences and exterior shots to the backdrop of half-demolished buildings and mountains of debris. The Third Man’s Vienna is a corpse—a creature that has had its once-beautiful soul drained completely, but has been forced to keep on living through military occupation. The difference between this vampire character and that of Welles’ is that its position between “perpetrator” and “victim” are not nearly as straightforward. Vienna is undead, but was it a victim of Nazism? Or a willing participant in the evils committed against humanity?

Much like Harry Lime does with the underground sewage system, The Third Man leverages the darkness and uncertainty of its genre to evade answering these big-picture questions, choosing instead to veil the war-torn city under a cloak of moral ambiguity. All it knows for certain is how to rid itself of the vampires it can handle. Taking narrative cues from practices of the 18th Century Vampire Controversy, the film’s protagonists exhume the suspicious casket, track down the monster and finish him off for good so that he can no longer bring harm to the community. Only, here, the classic stake-through-the-heart ending is traded for something more in line with film noir sensibilities: A single gunshot from a detective’s black revolver.

Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.