The groundbreaking final shot in the classic thriller The Third Man is justly lauded as a masterpiece of anticipation and resolution, as well as the sheer bravura of it’s execution.
It is a single, symmetrically composed static camera shot. The nominal heroine Anna (Alida Valli) walks down the middle of a tree lined lane from the funeral of her lover. She appears in the distance and the entire length of the shot is her demure walk towards, and past, the camera.
The nominal hero, Holly (Joseph Cotton), waits for her on the left side of the frame, watching her approach. She walks past him, without even a glance. He lights a cigarette, throws away the match, and the film fades to black. As with much of the movie, the shot is scored by Anton Karas’ unnervingly jaunty zither music.
The expectation of the shot is that Anna should walk off with Holly in the traditional arm in arm happy ending. That was what producer David O Selznick wanted, and what writer Graham Greene originally wrote.
However, director Carol Reed argued that such an ending would be ridiculously cynical and unrealistic. After all, Holly had killed her lover and betrayed his villainous best friend, so such a false resolution was unrealistic and unfair to the characters.
In turn, Greene was sceptical of Reed’s dramatic sincerity. He felt the whole piece was a lightweight affair, so a bleak ending was inappropriate. He also believed the audience for such a concoction would be too impatient and restless to stay in their seats for such a long, drawn out shot. He later admitted how very wrong he was.
The whole movie is a delightfully subversive oddity, continually playing with expectations, so it is wholly appropriate it should end in an unusual manner. The shot is all about anticipation. We should expect Anna to veer off the path towards Holly, or for him to walk towards her, but neither happens. The longer we wait, the less likely the “normal” conclusion appears.
Anna just ignores Holly, which is as determinedly brutal a slap in the face as any gunshot. No dialogue, no action, not even a connecting of eyes. No camera movement, just weirdly inappropriate, repetitive music. It shouldn’t work, but it does so brilliantly. As cold and cool and stylish as the whole movie.
It is a much referenced shot. Alan Parker homaged it excellently in the ending of Midnight Express, albeit with entirely different emotional weight. His jailbird escapee protagonist wanders down a street, and an Army truck approaches. The anticipation of his imminent capture builds, tension increases, before the truck continues past, and he is free.
Ultimately, the enduring brilliance of the shot is a testament to artistic courage and dramatic sincerity. Reed was right, and the audience responded, and continues to do so. Sometimes, the bravest, oddest decisions are the most correct ones if made with heart and honesty, something that artists of all walks should possess in abundance.