Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Great Last Scenes: The Third Man
Director: Carol Reed
Great Because...: It's so sad but also so achingly perfect. Nothing is easy in The Third Man, especially doing the right thing. Holly Martins does do the right thing by helping to capture his friend Harry Lime, but doing so costs him everything. Harry is killed and Anna, the woman Holly has come to love, no longer wants anything to do with him. That long shot of Anna walking past Holly as if he isn't even there is perhaps the most devastating shot of the entire film.
There's circularity to the story of The Third Man. Holly arrives in war torn Vienna just in time to attend Harry's funeral, learning that he was killed in an accident. The more Holly hears about it, however, the more he realizes that there's something fishy about the official story and he begins trying to uncover the truth. Eventually he discovers that Harry isn't dead after all, but by this time he's also learned that his old friend has been involved in a scheme that has left behind a string of victims.
Holly agrees to help capture Harry but only on one condition: that Anna be allowed to leave Vienna with him. When Anna discovers the deal and refuses to have any part of it, Holly begins to reconsider the plot but only until he sees some of Harry's victims up close. Friendship or not, Harry needs to be held accountable for what he's done.
The film reaches its famous climax in the sewers, where Harry finds himself cornered and dies in one last, feeble attempt to get away. For the second time Holly finds himself at his friend's funeral and before he leaves he waits to speak with Anna. In a long, unbroken shot that lasts about two minutes we watch as Anna walks down the path in Holly's direction. She passes him without slowing down or even looking at him and the film fades out with him alone in the shot, still watching her walk out of his life forever.
These last moments are played absoltely perfectly. "Nothing" happens and yet you could argue that so much happens. Neither Holly nor Anna has to say anything for us to know exactly what each is feeling; the silence between them probably says more than words ever could. It's an ending that gets to me every time and I'm eternally grateful that Carol Reed did not follow the advice of Graham Greene (who wrote the screenplay) and have Holly and Anna end up together in the end. An ending like that one would have felt cheap, but ending it on a distinctly solemn note fits perfectly with the rest of the film. In his review, Roger Ebert referred to the final moments as "a long, elegiac sigh." I can think of no better way to describe it.