Graham Greene was kind of a clever guy.
The Third Man was on cable the other night, and I shouldn't start, because I'm always sucked in. Looking at the movie a bit, there's little wonder. It's a tidy piece of work strung together from familiar ideas in a nice combination that ratchets up the complexity of the whole and still manages to surprise us at the end--all while preparing those surprises very nicely.
A naive American man (a writer of simplistic popular fiction) goes to morally ambiguous and complex war-torn Vienna to work on a project with an old friend.
The American finds the friend is dead. That pretty much begins Act II.
Notice how little we know. There's very little 'exposition'--because the American must discover everything, and we'll discover it too, but in dribs and drabs.
We know little about the dead friend. We'll hear a lot: this also provides tremendous build-up.
Through odd behavior and inconcistencies, the friend begins to believe something fishy is going on--that the friend did not die in an accident but was rather murdered.
At the same time, American falls in love with his dead friend's girlfriend.
So now we have two things going on: a kind of amateur murder investigation, and a would-be love story, a romantic triangle with a dead man.
About halfway through, the American discovers his dead friend was not so nice. He'd been told this a lot before, but a lot of characters make post-war Vienna seem like a place where nice honest people don't get too far. But the dead friend wasn't just a rascal: he was a really bad person.
All this information was neatly withheld--because if the American were searching for a really terrible, we wouldn't care very much. If the American is "searching for a friend" or "trying to discover who murdered his friend," we kind of understand that.
At this point, the American decides his friend is 'better off' dead: the deserved what he got.
He plans to go back to the U.S. He's wiser now. He confesses his crush to the girl, but nothing can come of it, since she's still pretty much in love with the dead guy, worthy or not.
At this point, the murder investigation is moot--it doesn't matter what happened to the dead friend, he deserved what he got, it wasn't unjust--and the romance is moot, too.
The movie's over. Right? Not quite.
Now--spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the movie--it turns out the dead friend isn't dead. Talk about a twist.
As with most clever movies with a mystery and/or a twist, there is always a false hypothesis. The American doesn't think "I bet my friend is really alive and only pretending to be dead." He thinks "something's fishy--maybe it was murder." He's right about the fishy part, wrong about the murder part.
The logic of the actions is clever, too. This one change changes the actions, flips them all around.
It's now incumbent upon the American to kill his best friend. If not to kill him, at least to cause him to be arrested and punished.
The goal went from find the friend to find what happened to the friend and romance the dead friend's girl to right the friend's wrongs by making him pay.
It's a bit turning on a dime, but it's very powerful.
Notice how little bits of familiar stories are piled on top of each other. Are the individual elements so strange? Innocent American in corrupt old Europe. Friend investigating his friend's murder. Romantic triangle. Woman mourning for her lover, relying on the mercy of strangers. The 'cop' (here a soldier) sick of meddling amateurs. (That one's in just about every detective story.) They're all trite!
But the combination enriches them, and let's face it: you hadn't seen them in post-War occupied Vienna before. (No one had.)
There's more to this reversal. In a strange and somewhat happy coincidence, the American is still nursing a crush on the friend's girlfriend, so we get a more conventional angle: the American would be better off if his friend really were out of the way. If he can kill or lock up his former best friend, the American still might get the girl after all!
The American cooperates--collaborates, one might say--with the police. (They were antagonists all along, not believing his silly theories, finding him hopelessly unwise. So that's another big reversal.) The American tries to rescue the girl he loves, to send her away, but to no avail. (If she left the plot, there would be less emotional complication for the American.)
And he tries to trap the old friend. But the girl shows up--talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That kind of bad luck is necessary in movies.
A chase ensues. The 'friend' would be happy to kill the American (who's now betrayed him). He really isn't so nice!
The friend shoots a nice soldier who liked the American's books. This causes the American to take his gun and go after his former best friend.
The friend is wounded. But an exchange of looks between the American and his wounded friend suggests that the friend asks to be killed.
So even when we might expect the vengeance plot, we get first betrayal and then helping.
The American stops one more time before leaving to try to romance the girl--to no avail.
It's a superb script. It's crammed with delightful, unique details. Most of the characters speak in anti-romantic ironies. (When the American observes that the mourning girl has smiled and asks her to smile again, she replies about that happiness that "there isn't enough for two smiles.")
And of course, the whole thing is beautifully photographed and acted in Vienna.
But the layering of actions, the complications, the reversals, the looping back on itself, and the surprises, the combination of unity and surprise--that is all about fine screenwriting, the kind we can study and learn from.
--E. R. O'Neill