The Third Man (1949)

A chase scene in Vienna. "The Third Man."

Directed and produced by Carol Reed. Screenplay by Graham Greene. Music by Anton Karas. Photographed by Robert Krasker. Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter. Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfred Hyde-White.

“The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.” – Harry Lime

There is no real way to talk about Carol Reed’s The Third Man in this day and age without giving away a massive spoiler. Because…well, let’s think about this. Arguably, three of the most famous roles that Orson Welles ever played were Charles Foster Kane, Hank Quinlan, and Harry Lime. In fact, Harry Lime might just plain be his most famous, because when we consider Kane and Quinlan (in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, respectively), we think of Welles the director first and Welles the actor second. The Third Man, which was not directed by Welles but instead by Carol Reed, slips through our thoughts of Welles the director, Welles the iconoclast, Welles the fat and frustrated martinet. With The Third Man, we consider Welles as just Welles. Indeed, Welles’ portrayal of Harry Lime in this movie became so famous that he later reprised it in a radio series. But…within the opening moments of The Third Man, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in Vienna and learns that his friend Harry Lime is dead. So what am I supposed to do? Play straight with you or pretend that Orson Welles isn’t in the movie?

I would bet anything that most viewers going into The Third Man cold already know the movie’s central secret: that Harry Lime is actually alive. You would think that would hamstring the movie’s plot developments, since we keep waiting for Harry Lime to finally appear, and it’s a long time before he does. But I think it actually adds a layer of mystique to the movie, because when Martins starts investigating the death of his friend Harry and suspects something doesn’t add up, we share his frustration because we know ourselves that it doesn’t. And that also further whets our anticipation for when Welles will finally, inevitably, appear. As Hitchcock famously observed: “A bomb is under the table and it explodes—that’s action. A bomb is under the table and it does not explode—that’s suspense.” Harry Lime is a bomb waiting to explode.

The Third Man occupies a genre near and dear to many movie watcher’s hearts, and that is film noir. Noir is commonly linked to stories about private eyes and mobsters, but that is a small yet crucial mistake, because noir is more accurately described as crime stories that traffic in cynicism, checkered pasts and moral compromise. It was invented in the pages of Dashiell Hammett, nurtured in the shadows of German Expressionism, and refined in Hollywood films of the early 40’s. But it found its full voice after World War II, when Americans reintegrated themselves into society and feared they were now made of pieces that did not fit. It was here that trenchcoats became defensive mechanisms, cigarettes turned into expressions of anger and self-pity, and the brims of hats were pulled down low, to hide shame. These were always props that were favored by hard-boiled cops, guns, and dames, but after the war, a lot more people had legitimate reasons to be hard-boiled.

There are really three stories that exist side-by-side within The Third Man. The first is a travelogue of post-war Vienna, given an ironic charge by the famous musical score by Anton Karas that feels like a false smile on a gloomy day. It sounds cheerful but it is also ominous, and it seems to grow more removed as the film continues. The second story is within the classic film noir tradition where a man investigates the death of a friend and soon finds himself a target of both the police and criminals alike. And the third story, which is made possible by the support of the other two, highlights the pitiless nature of this particular time in Viennese history: we see the reasons it has been split into four different sections (each corresponding to a nation), the inner workings of the underground, and most importantly the crushing economy that makes crime attractive, and even flourish. One night Martins visits Harry’s actress girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) in her dressing room. She offers him some wine. He declines. She looks at the bottle. “Just as well. I was going to try to sell this.” It’s a small detail, but not a throwaway one.

More details emerge, all circling the central theme of Vienna’s lack of direction after the war. Martins, himself a writer, meets two policemen: Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who grows increasingly hostile at the American’s naivete, and Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee), who is a fan of the author’s simplistic westerns with black and white morality, perhaps because it is a temporary escape from his rotten station. Notes  are consistently sounded of how the people of Vienna are impoverished, cold, and cramped, with others constantly intruding with their voices, attentions, their bodies, and police searches (it’s no coincidence that the most spacious and comfortable location in the film is a sewer). In one key moment, all it takes is a frightening little boy with circumstantial evidence to convince a scared mob that Martins is a killer.

The plot moves in small, believable steps. Martins asks around about Harry. He asks the same people the same questions. Through his travels we get accounts of the life of Harry Lime, but they don’t seem to add up. How can Holly’s best friend be also seen as a criminal kingpin by the police? Isn’t it an astonishing coincidence that Harry’s doctor was passing by just at the fateful moment that Harry was struck by a car and killed? And how can there be two witnesses, and yet a third man who helped carry Harry’s corpse into the ambulance? And what the hell happened to Harry Lime? Everyone has an answer, and yet no one offers a solution.

The film is overall an evocation of nightmare logic, much beloved by noirs because they create a tilted plane of reality that suggests paranoia, fear, despair. Martins, while a famous author, is completely out of his element in this sophisticated crime story, finds the girlfriend imperceptible when she should be easy to figure, and even courts her in ways that are ultimately too childish for her. In one moment that has the makings of dark comedy, the dogged Holly is mistaken for a more substantial author, and finds himself hosting a symposium for theories with which he knows nothing about. He is smart enough to poke holes in differing accounts of what happened to Harry Lime, but takes a long time to believe his friend Harry was or is a criminal, even when the evidence is clear. Or at least seems to be clear.

And at some point we get so wrapped up in Martins’ trevails that we may legitimately forget that Orson Welles is in the film, but we’re reminded in a hurry when he makes his entrance – one of the great movie entrances, aided effectively by the lighting, the photography, a mewling (and particular) cat, and the most importantly the face of Welles himself: his eyes aflame, his lip curled up with the hint of a smile even under the circumstances. A key aspect of the film’s arc is that realization that Harry is genuinely happy to see his friend Holly. Sure, he’s a criminal, but criminals still have friends.

What follows is a pointed moral dilemma, ingeniously fashioned by screenwriter Graham Greene (based upon his own novella) that turns the screws to poor old Holly Martins. Holly. Such a nice, unassuming name. Should Holly betray his friend or betray the tentative relationship he has with the police? Both decisions are given equal weight—the film doesn’t shy away from Harry’s criminal enterprises; instead it follows Martins and Calloway into a hospital, where victims’ of Harry Lime’s black market penicillin whimper in agony. And as for Harry, he’s played so affably by Welles that not only do we believe him when he’s professing his friendship for Harry, but we also believe when he gingerly drops the threats to his old friend that he must considering the position each of them is in.

A key sequence takes place in a desolate fairground (another victim of Vienna’s crumbling economy), where a Harry and Holly take a ride on a ferris wheel. They talk. The talk takes the form of shrewd dialogue that effectively juxtaposes immaturity with grey morality. Listen to Harry’s thesis, as they peer down at the scattered fair attendees:

“You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”

Or later:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”

This is famous dialogue that I have sampled, but it provides a critical clue to The Third Man’s status as a classic. It’s not an exercise in style. It’s actually about something.

It’s the character of Anna, so shadowy and hidden, that provides in many respects the emotional lynchpin of the movie. The affair she has with Harry—in the past and (she hopes) future—is as real as the feelings she has for Holly in the present. She is an opportunist, a survivor, in a culture that is struggling desperately to survive. There is such desperation to her behavior, her body language, an irrepressible guilt that even when it is explained (she got to Vienna through a forged passport) seems bigger and more expressive than it is. In a lot of ways, she is the victim of The Third Man, not Holly, who not only eventually betrays his principles but does it for absolutely nothing. In a climactic moment, Anna quite reasonably registers disgust at her would-be lover, because she would rather stand by a man who believes in something illegal than someone who doesn’t believe in anything. It leads to a fraught conclusion that is haunting and quiet, and in many ways definitive noir.

The film was shot on location in Vienna, with striking black and white photography that captures rubble, cracks and craters. No wonder so many shots show extras scurrying to and fro: they are rats in a huge nest. And startling faces: not just Harry Lime, but also Holly’s friendliness and joviality that sours before our eyes, and Anna’s coldness, her eyes internal and burning. You sense that it is Harry’s friendship (however distant) with Holly that keeps him a little bit warm, and it is Anna’s terseness that allows her to cut through the bottom line, and prefer to believe in a lie than someone else’s truth, much like Holly with his own books.

The Third Man is a classic in the noir field, and really needs no introduction. It should be seen, and it should be celebrated. It’s pacing is the equal of any mystery made today, packing a lot into 104 minutes. But it’s the characters that make it real, and compelling, and more than a little sad, even when dealing with people who do not want our pity. And that makes me think of the music again. So deceptively uplifting and happy. It’s the soundtrack of ideals, ones that sound more and more hollow upon practical application. It’s the music of a sphere we don’t live in, the world of heroes. Instead, we occupy the worlds of Harry Lime and Holly Martin, where some rats are king of the nest, and others mistakenly think they are above it.


NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2011 – The Tree of Life

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1998 – Following


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