The Third Man: Genre vs. Country-of-Origin

Paper by Phill Hunziker.

Both American Film Noir and English Cinema have dramatically influenced the course of film history. While American Film Noir is an iconic film genre that was prominent throughout the 40’s and 50’s, English Cinema spans the entirety of the film industry’s existence in Great Britain. Comparing and contrasting a genre and an entire country’s film history is not an entirely feasible affair, but there is one film in which many characteristics of each are exist and mesh so well together. The Third Man (Reed, 1949) both embodies narrative, aesthetic and iconographic archetypes of American Film Noir, but contrasts rather nicely thanks to its aspects attributed to English Cinema style.

Film Noir as a genre and a movement spans both decades and cross the globe, so no country or time can truly claim to be the founder or greatest producers of it. However, for the sake of this paper, American Film Noir specifically will be used to compare/contrast with The Third Man. It can be argued that American Film Noir is the most prominent of the genre. Over the span of almost two decades, America was the home for numerous classics such as The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941), Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), The Asphalt Jungle (Huston, 1949), and The Killing (Kubrick, 1956). The history of film noir is unique in that it was not only so directly influenced by WWII before, during, and after it had ended, but was also a reaction to America’s production code. The genre’s films provided a fresh depiction of life for Americans worn down by The Great Depression and WWII, as well as provided major aesthetic and narrative influence for the industry and 70+ years of succeeding films. In regards to WWII impact, both narrative and aesthetic content were affected. The use of electric lighting, a staple of film noir cinematography, by both domestic consumers and industry (including film) “rose sharply in the post-war years.” (Keating) The films provided a darker, more realistic vision of American life, as opposed to the glossy high-class style of films made under the strict guidelines of the Production Code. Their filmmakers were creative in how they generated content that just towed the line while being uniquely riveting and suggestive. Instead of anything close to explicit sexual content, much of American Film Noir utilized sexual innuendo, whether by highlighting intense nonverbal communication, using phallic imagery, or employing the seduction of the iconic femme fatale. The aesthetics (B&W, low-key lighting, usage of shadows, voiceover, nonlinear editing, etc.) and narrative elements (nonlinear narrative, dark themes, archetypal characters like the femme fatale) of American Film Noir do not necessarily differ to much from those of other countries within the genre. After all, these films influenced each other greatly so there are to be many similarities between American and, say British Film Noir. The reason for specifically analyzing American Film Noir is to try and distinguish British Cinema’s characteristics from film noir, rather than simply analyzing British Film Noir.

English Cinema has a unique influence on global cinema, in that it’s not necessarily the most profitable or popular, but its influence can be found littered throughout film history. Masters of cinema like Alfred Hitchcock hailed from there, and many prominent English films have influenced those that followed them. There is a distinct English wit that spices up any genre, and The Third Man is a perfect example, especially with the witty banter provided by Martins (Cotten). The director, Carol Reed, was one of the country’s most prominent at the the height of film noir (40’s and 50’s). He applied many of the characteristic of British Cinema to the film. WWII greatly affected the film industries of all countries involved, including England. The english wit went hand-in-hand with the cynical outlook on life the developed in British society over the years. The war, unlike with America, was partly fought on/above England land so their people got a much more close and personal experience. This resulted in British film aesthetics and themes being darker/more entrancing. The Third Man perfectly encapsulates this mood. The class text digs into the aura of film: “..the bombed-out locale is not merely used as a picturesque backdrop: It serves as a symbolic embodiment of the theme of moral decay. The chilly nighttime settings, the wet empty streets, the rain and impenetrable fog—all combine to produce an atmosphere of mystery, deception and unspeakable evil.” (Giannetti, Eyman) That backdrop is literally a post-WWII world, as the “omniscient narration opens with a voice-over by Martins describing postwar Vienna and his arrival in the city.” (Man)  The characters are considered quirky and “sometimes funny as well as vaguely sinister” (Giannetti, Eyman) whereas American Film Noir characters tend to be a mesh of sinister, melancholy and mystery. British cinema to the naked eye may not seem too dissimilar to American cinema, especially within the same genre, but a closer contextualized look will find an array differences.

As elaborated on previously, The Third Man possesses most of the iconic characteristics of film noir. The film does separate from standard American film noir in more than a few regards, however. First, the film’s usage of shadow is considerably less than many American film noir when the action takes place inside. Dark alleys and silhouettes are surely utilized, but a staple of American Film Noir is the excessive use of interior low-key lighting in addition to exterior scenes. Up until the final act, most of the scenes are either shot outside in the daytime or interior scenes in which shadow is not much of a factor. Rather, the world is distorted using peculiar camera angles and tight frames. The final act, however, more than makes up for this with most of the remaining film shot on the dark city streets. One specific scene, arguably the film’s turning point, in which shadow is heavily used is when Lyme (Welles) finally makes his first on-screen presence. Lyme is tucked away in an alley near an unknowing drunk Martins, hidden by a great shadow. When Martins’ drunken rambling causes a resident to turn on her light, the silhouette is revealed to be the supposedly dead Lyme himself. For a brief moment, only his grinning face is visible to a flabbergasted Martins. The light turns back off and Martins loses him, only hearing loud running footsteps as he struggles to believe what he saw. This reveal is unique and differs from standard American Film Noir. Rather than utilizing a dark, mysterious score like American films of the same kind usually do, the non-diegetic music is an upbeat plucking guitar that isn’t entirely unique to British style but surely is more apparent in it than American Film Noir. This creates an entirely different mood, though equal in its impact and iconic status. The film’s themes are similarly gritty and full of conspiracy like American Film Noir, but differ in the way they are carried out. Rather than a femme fatale (Valli’s Alida is hardly that) playing the manipulative rogue, that role is filled by Lyme. The protagonist is not an ordinary man unfortunately caught in an extraordinary situation, he is a badge-less investigator with a keen eye and true conviction. He voluntarily chooses to not only stay in this dark world but is fully willing to go the end of the tunnel with a loaded gun. Compare that to the archetypal American Film Noir protagonist, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Draw connections from these different character types to each of their respective films’ countries’ states at the time and it’s apparent that, regardless of genre, films are primarily influenced by their origins.

The Third Man strikes a balance between genre characteristics and country-of-origin influence. British Film Noir is so similar to American Film Noir, yet is so different because of the unique British cinema characteristics it possesses. Film Noir, like all other genres, transcends national influence. However, as this film shows, it is important to understand that films of any genre are still a reflection of whatever country produced them and will be distinctly different from fellow genre films from different countries.


Work Cited

Giannetti, Louis D., and Scott Eyman. Flashback: A Brief History of Film. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986. Print.

Keating, Patrick. “Film Noir and the Culture of Electric Light.” Film History 27.1 (2015): 58. Web.

Man, Glenn K.S. “The Third Man: Pulp Fiction and Art Film.” Literature Film Quarterly 21.3 (1993): n. pag. Web.


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