Although Wikipedia is not a credible source for any sort of research, it does give a good sense of general opinions, especially on culture. What the Wikipedia masses have determined, then, is that The Third Man is a “1949 British Film Noir” that “many critics rank as a masterpiece.” I do not dispute the masterpiece claim; the movie is brilliant, from its sharp camera angles to its powerful performances. The claim that can be disputed is that it is a film noir. It is a film noir in style; the obligatory ciaro-scuro lighting, labyrinthine city and subjective cinematography are all present. In themes, however, the movie fails the noir label.
Spicer lists several thematic elements that Noir films usually follow. The first one, one that has appeared in each film we have watched, is the theme of “Existentialism,” or, as Spicer qualifies, of “Alienation and Paranoia” (Spicer 64). Spicer defines Noir’s existentialism as its “sense that life is absurd and meaningless,” which really is more Nihilistic than Existential (Sartre, theExistential, finds meaning in the world, so I don’t like Spicer’s use of the term) (Spicer 64). This is a trait that has shown up in every film we have watched so far. Both Phyllis and Uncle Charlie displayed this sort of nihilism, and both Neff and Young Charlie face down this lack of meaning, and are at least partly ruined by it. Now, there is a sense of Nihilism in The Third Man; Lime extols the philosophy on the ferris wheel. Yet, it is not allowed to triumph in the film as much as it is in Double Indemnity and Shadow of A Doubt.
There are two examples that show this. The first is Holly’s decision to turn on Lime. Initially resistant, Holly finally bends upon seeing the children in the hospital, the victims of Lime’s penicillin racket. By accepting that these children are more important than his friendship, Holly is choosing an absolute morality over the Existential Nihilism represented by Lime. Killing children is something that can be ignored to make a profit; it is morally wrong. To be fair, Gilda and Farrell had a similar triumph over a nihilistic character; unlike The Third Man, however, that ending was more of a product of the production code than a deliberate directorial choice. Holly’s choice to turn Lime in is a vital and integral part of the movie which cannot be written off.
Spicer disagrees; he states the film has a “refusal to endorse conventional morality,” made apparent in the final scene (Spicer 190). Anna’s refusal to stop for Holly proves, Spicer says, that his victory over Lime is “hollow” (Spicer 189). First, calling the victory “hollow” because of this scene implies that everything Holly did was to win Anna over. However, his decision because of the children’s hospital comes after he made the decision to fly home and forget about Anna—she was not a factor in his final choice. The ending, then, is not about morality, or Nihilism, but instead about love. Holly wants one more chance to talk to talk to Anna, even at the expense of missing his flight. Even his final line–”I haven’t got a sensible name”–is a comment on the senselessness of someone in love as opposed to anything about the unfairness of the world in general. One gets the sense that after smoking his cigarette, Holly will pick up his bag and follow Anna off the camera—in a continuation of the story that the camera cannot, or will not, capture.
Of course, failing to contain one theme does not make this film not a noir. However, it is a major factor to miss. I left Double Indemnity and Shadow of a Doubt feeling dirty, as if the world is a darker place than before the film started. I left The Third Man with a hope that even if the world is shadowy and askew, that there are some moral choices that are easy to make, and that even being forced to kill a friend doesn’t keep him from falling deeply in love.