Expressionism and Montage in The Third Man


Any movie that features a somewhat svelte Orson Welles is bound to be interesting. The Third Man is no exception to that rule.


Written and scripted by Graham Greene of “Perry Mason” fame, and directed by Carol Reed, the film stands as an absolute masterpiece of film noir and has achieved through the years a kind of manic cult status.


Although Welles did not direct the film, rumors abounded that he had almost as much say as Reed in directing it – and Reed himself acknowledged that Welles forced him to change his “happy” ending to one of futility and despair – an ending which is now considered a classic.


Regardless of who directed the movie, it is still an amazing thing to watch. It moves with a style that is completely its own, but that is, on closer inspection, a sort of fusion of Soviet montage theory and German expressionism. As these two styles synthetically merge – and as Reed/Welles add a few innovations – a movie emerges which stands on its own but at the same time pays homage to great film techniques of the past.


By far, the most famous sequence in the movie is the stunning “Ferris Wheel” scene with Welles and his old friend from his RKO days, Joseph Cotten. Welles purportedly had full control over that particular scene – including scripting all of the dialogue.


However, since that particular sequence has been beat to death over the years due to its heavy philosophical content, I have opted to analyze twenty-five shots from a much more obscure part of the film. To get to that, unfortunately, I need to do a little bit of summarizing.





Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten) is invited to Vienna by his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Martens is a writer of cheap Western novels in the Zane Grey format, and Lime has offered him a job as a sort of “notetaker”; he is to chronicle Lime’s life.


Unfortunately, when Martens arrives, he discovers that Lime is nowhere to be found – above ground, at least. Lime was hit by a car while crossing the street. Martens has an early run-in with the British police – Major Calloway and Lieutenant Payne, mostly – over his friend’s death. Martens proceeds to interview one of the key witnesses of the death only to find out that there was a “third man” involved who never surfaced in the police reports.


Certain that he facing a military/police coverup of some kind – this is post-World-War-II Vienna, a decidedly corrupt town – Martens opts to take a “lone gunfighter” approach and get to the bottom of the entire mess. He meets Lime’s girlfriend, Anna, whose visa has been forged by Lime.


In the course of his “investigation”, Martens clumsily knocks around in a city that he has no concept of but still manages to uncover the fact that his friend Harry Lime is alive. What he cannot accept is that Lime has been selling diluted penicillin on the black market, causing thousands of deaths. Eventually, he is convinced of Lime’s guilt, and sets him up in order to get Anna’s visa returned to her.


After a chase through the city sewer system, Lime ends up trapped, trying grope his way out. Cornered, he nods at Martens to shoot him and effectively commits suicide. After the climax of the film, Martens “waits” for Anna at the end of a long street that she is walking down, only to have her pass by him obliviously. He flicks his cigarette onto the ground in a gesture of futility – and the credits roll.


The twenty-five shots that I am analyzing come near the climax of the movie. Martens has agreed to set up Lime, after being shown some of Lime’s victims first-hand. He is waiting in a café while outside Calloway, Payne, and two non-descript officers from the German and Russian sectors of the city wait outside, hoping to collar Lime when he walks in to meet his old friend.


The sequence is particularly interesting to compare with silent film because the majority of it is silent. There are three short spoken lines – “Psst!”, “Payne!”, and “Are you going to sit there all night?” – along with a score that won an Academy Award. Only the score is a significant contributor to the thematic elements and mood of the film in a quietly dark, expressionistic manner, a matter which I will come to further on.


“German Expressionism”, even expressionism, has always seemed to me to be a problematic term in all art fields. It suffers the same kind of malady that plagues the categories of modernism and post-modernism – namely, it is very hard to pin the movement down historically and categorize things in black and white (“expressionist” and “not expressionist”). It is much more an all-pervasive mood, a fearful adrenaline-charged nightmare edge. The earliest “offspring” in post-sound Hollywood of the movement is the Gothic horror film; the original version of Frankenstein was directed by a man who deliberately wanted to copy what he had seen earlier in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It can be seen in the skewed, strange angles and the nightmarish set design of that film.


The same case can easily be made for film noir, which acts much of the time like a Gothic horror film without the supernatural quality – or with that quality a little less flamboyantly displayed.

Expressionism can be seen growing out of the side of the German culture as a crippled and mutated attempt to deal with the horrors of their post-war environment. It is an uncomfortable thing to watch in action – scenes from movies like Caligari and The Last Laugh can make your skin crawl. It is no coincidence that this is the same Germany that eventually went beyond the realm of art and created their own authentic nightmare personified.


In that way, to a canonically classic film noir movie like The Third Man, expressionism is invaluable as a cinematic tool. Movies of the film noir genre want to be intense, dark, brooding things; potboiled mysteries that move so darkly and oddly that you feel as if you are being watched rather than watching a movie.


The strangeness of the camera placement in The Third Man is without a doubt the most expressionist aspect of it. Consider the twenty-five shots in their entirety; there is a series of extremely fast-paced cross-cutting, where straight-on shots are intermingled with portentous angle-up shots – broken every five-ten cuts with the quick interspersing of intentionally bizarre skewed (“Dutch”) angles.


Another deeply expressionistic element of Reed’s film is the lighting. Everything in the sequence analyzed (and the movie, pretty much) is done in low-key lighting, with strong contrast and “pools” of light in the frame. The lighting is absolutely crucial, especially to this particular part of the film. In shots 6 and 10, the faces of soldiers are perfectly placed so that when they breathe foggily into the air, the light will pick up and reflect off of the mist. In shot 15, perhaps the most interesting take in the sequence, lighting virtually drives the tracking action of the camera, with Calloway and Payne rotating out of the shadows in a bizarre and unsettling way.


Unquestionably, the mise-en-scene is heavily expressionistic and also loaded with thematic overtones. The entire scene takes place among the ruined statuary of Vienna, most visible in shots 13 through 20, with ever-present “eyes”; the use of light, shadow, and spacing in shot 15 suggest that Calloway and Payne are “in the shadow” of religion. However, there isn’t enough time to philosophically digest the film and at the same time look at its stylistic devices, so I am not offering much in the way of “free  interpretation.


The one truly wonderful shot – number 15, with its track-in, pan down, track right smoothness – does show one thing that is not expressionist-born – the strange use of intersecting lines and basic geometric shapes in each of the shots, especially those involving the waiting officers, which give the feeling of straight-spined members of the military waiting and brooding, brooding and waiting. This is a steal from the Soviets and films like The Battleship Potemkin


Quick-cutting between all these scenes produces the nightmare effect of expressionism – this sort of horrible sense of being watched from the inside of the film. Nothing in the diegesis will stay settled; angles and lighting are constantly shifting and moving in a seasick way.


And over everything, Reed decides to place a score that at first sounds like an out-of-tune rendition of “Zorba the Greek” but quickly establishes itself as a frighteningly asynchronous compliment to the entire film. Just as the movie seems “out of tune” in an expressionist manner, so does the score that accompanies it – and they hammer the hell out of the score, playing the one basic theme over and over and over.


But it is not just the use of geometric lines in the frame of the film for dramatic effect that Reed borrows from the Soviets. All of these expressionist effects rely on a Soviet-style, montage-manner of quick-cutting. The Soviets grabbed Griffith’s quick melodramatic cross-cutting and turned it into the raw clay from which one is to mold a film; Reed takes a lesson from the Soviets and Griffith together and uses it in an expressionistic manner to heighten the tension of the sequence.


The point can be better explained by looking at an excerpt from the sequence:

Shot 2: (Low angle) Officer #1 tilts his head up and looks off to his bottom left.

Shot 3: ELS shot of a lonely street curving off to the right.

Shot 4: (Low angle) Officer #2, stationed somewhere below officer #1, occupying the left side of the frame, turns his head to the left.

Shot 5: (Dutch/skewed right) Another non-descript empty street, as in 3, curving to the left.

Shot 6: Officer #1 in a profile shot on the right side of the frame breathes mistily into the air.


What is happening is neither “meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch” Griffith-style cutting, nor is it simply Soviet montage, where an image is built from the bottom up through cross-cutting. The quick cuts back and forth to streets pointing in different directions, with tense close-ups of soldier’s faces in-between, is being used to produce a freakish expressionist mood. Film noir is emerging as a full-blown artistic style of its own.


True, the quick cross-cuts are used to increase tension and to delay/retard the plot for dramatic purposes a la Grifitth, but the manner is so much more practiced and delicate than Griffith’s, and so peppered with the flavor of the Soviets, that it can hardly be classified at all.


The suspense built up via the “balloon man” shadow sequences, for instance, is released by showing a completely balanced view of the watchers going from intense forward leans to relaxed backward leans in sequences that are in almost exact opposition to each other, as in:


Shot 17: Officer #1 leans forward.

Shot 18: Exterior of the café. Holly can be seen leaning forward.


When you contrast those shots with the following:


            Shot 21: Officer #1, as in 17, leans back.

            Shot 22: Holly as in 18. He leans back.


…you end up with a use of cross-cutting for dramatic purposes and to smoothly “wrinkle out” that suspense so that it can be totally reset to its previous level of suspense.


The Third Man, on a certain level, has absolutely nothing to do with Griffith, the Expressionists, or the Soviet Montage movement. On that level, it is an achievement of its own.


However, the phrase “all art is borrowed” is all too true. A better way of thinking about it is, perhaps, that art must perpetually build upon itself; it must evolve. On that level, The Third Man can be seen not as an homage to anything before it but an attempt to legitimize a new movement – film noir – by leaning heavily on the shoulders of others.


The overall mood is expressionist, as are the sets and the lighting. The framing of certain scenes is a Soviet throwback, while the quick cross-cutting is a Soviet lesson learned by Griffith-trained minds.


The Third Man is a classic, and has every right to be. It is, personally, one of my favorite movies of all time. Yet the delicate framework of cinematic art can be seen behind the background of it all. That framework differs in shape and size from that of any other film, but it is built from the same wood that was used much earlier, in silent films all over the world.