The Third Man

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.

And there we have one of the most impish, mischievous pieces of cynicism ever spoken to the camera, essentially a throwaway moment in a movie yet the one that’s most fondly remembered and perhaps best sums up the nature of the character who delivers it. The Third Man (1949) has come to be regarded not only as a classic film noir but one of the true high points of post-war British filmmaking. It remains a dazzling piece of work, urgent, energetic, inventive and beguiling. I’m of the opinion that the greatest films all share one common characteristic: they can be revisited time and again and still manage to reveal different aspects of themselves to the viewer. There’s either a richness of theme or a subtle shading of the characters that allows for a shift in perspective, meaning that as our moods or feelings change over time the films are capable of addressing or coping with that. That’s what struck me as I watched The Third Man for the umpteenth time the other day, the way I found myself responding to the characters in a different light on that occasion.

The story unfolds over a couple of days in Vienna, a city whose Hapsburg splendor has been stripped naked and ravaged by the obscenity of war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in the city breezy and brimming with confidence having been promised a job by an old friend. Holly’s friend is Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and it appears that he’s going to be some kind of publicist for a vaguely defined medical charity. And yet no sooner has Holly set foot in Vienna than he discovers that instead of coming to praise Harry, he’s come to bury him. It appears that Harry met with a sudden accident: crossing the street to speak to a friend he happened to see, Harry is run over by a truck driven by his own chauffeur before being pronounced dead by his personal physician who was passing that way by chance. All very tragic and all very convenient. But coincidence is the preserve of fiction, and it’s not long before Holly realizes that the Harry he knew was really a work of fiction too. Full of righteous indignation, Holly first believes that Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British major, is besmirching his friend’s reputation before changing tack and coming to the conclusion that Harry was actually murdered. It’s during his blundering but well-meaning “investigation” of the circumstances of Harry’s mysterious end that Holly meets his friend’s lover. Anna (Alida Valli) is an actress, beautiful, tragic and enigmatic, almost a metaphor for post-war Europe itself. With his doubts about Harry’s life and death growing larger all the time, Holly begins to fall under the brittle spell cast by Anna. As he becomes more smitten by her charms, he undergoes another change, the ultimate one. The combination of his love for Anna and his understanding of the true character of Harry leads Holly to a betrayal that’s justifiable, perhaps even desirable, on a moral level yet somehow wrong on a human level.

Much has been written about The Third Man over the years, more scholarly and in-depth analysis than I could hope to achieve so I’m not going to attempt to compete with that. The unique locations, the driven direction of Carol Reed, the iconic photography of Robert Krasker and Anton Karas’ distinctive score all blend together to create a masterpiece of unease. Visually the film captures the fragmented nature of the era where everything felt a little skewed and off-center, a hard to define sense that something isn’t quite right, that all is not really what it seems. Of course all this technical and artistic brilliance is immediately apparent the first time one sees the film, and subsequent viewings only serve to underline that quality. However, as I said at the beginning, repeated viewings have drawn my attention to other aspects of the film, namely the characterization. This comes down to the skilful writing of Graham Greene and the performances of Welles, Cotten and Valli in particular. The shadow of Welles and Harry Lime loom large over the whole production, both the character and his interpretation by Welles. For a long time I was very taken by the Harry Lime character, I guess I still am to an extent, and the fact he inspired both a radio show and a TV series proves how widespread that feeling was. But let’s be honest here, Lime was a rotten and reprehensible character, a self-absorbed sociopath without a shred of pity or decency. It’s Welles’ brilliant portrayal – the modulation of voice, the expressiveness of his features and the fleeting twinkle in the eye – that transcends all that. Had anyone else played that role, it wouldn’t have worked. At all.

However, let’s return to those shifting perspectives I alluded to earlier. While Welles and Lime dominate the movie, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the characters of Holly and Anna. Holly is, I suppose, the nominal hero, the everyman through whose eyes we see the story develop. I came to sympathize with him, with Cotten’s no-nonsense portrayal of a guy who has his illusions gradually pared away until he sees things in the cold, clear light of day. I was rooting for him, wanting him to come out on top and get the girl in the end. That masterful long shot that ends the movie used to break my heart. I could imagine myself as the poor schmo getting out of the jeep and waiting for the girl I loved to approach, and then she just walks straight on, eyes fixed ahead and indifferent. And there was Holly, alone and empty, standing awkwardly on an empty road leading to a cemetery. As I watched the film a couple of days ago I caught myself looking at it from a different angle though. This time I was thinking about Anna and the way she is actually the only one of the central trio who displays honor and true integrity. She’s come to understand that her love for Harry was misplaced, even wasted, yet that realization doesn’t invalidate its truth. It was her loyalty right to the bitter end, her implacable refusal to betray her love, both the man and the ideal, that impressed me deeply. So as I say, it’s a film of many layers and every time I see it I seem to peel away another one.

Fortunately, The Third Man is a film which is very easy to see for anyone unfamiliar with it. There are lots of editions available and most of them are attractive. I have the old 2-DVD set released in the UK some years ago which has a very strong transfer and plenty of good extra features to boot. I’ve thought about maybe upgrading to the Blu-ray as it’s a title that gives me a lot of pleasure but I remain undecided. I have a kind of unwritten rule for myself that I won’t upgrade unless I’m honestly dissatisfied with some aspect of the presentation I already own. Watching this one again, I can’t really say that I am particularly dissatisfied, so we’ll see. Anyway, we’re talking about a bona fide classic here, a film which you can return to many times and it never loses any of its freshness. If you haven’t seen it before, then do so at the earliest opportunity. And if you have, watch it again and see what grabs you this time.

48 thoughts on “The Third Man

  1. Fantastic commentary on quite possibly my favourite film of all time, or at least it’s up there. It’s really just about perfect for me, with that cracking bleak atmosphere, shadow-suffused black and white photography and Karas’s score. I wish I could watch it for the first time again, just for the moment when I’m already enjoying it immensely and, blimey! There’s Orson Welles! I still listen to some of the old radio shows on a vintage radio app, just for Welles’s unique intonation.


    • Thanks Mike. It is a terrific movie of course and it’s always a pleasure to return to it periodically. There’s an excellent pace to the whole thing and the first hour just rattles along, and then that moment you speak of.
      The radio shows are well worth a listen and can be found online very easily, here for example.


  2. Great review Colin – I have in fact just been looking again at this as I’m planning a review of the short novel Greene wrote before writing his script – great minds, etc – I suppose one could sort of look at it as a kind of Easter-ish parable …


    • I hadn’t actually thought of that, but I suppose you could read such an interpretation into it.

      Sergio, I hope I haven’t stolen your thunder on this – definitely not my intention. I’m keen to read your thoughts on the novella and the differences between it and the finished film script.


      • Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having just pushed it back a month or so! I am literally sitting here waiting to start lunch, after which I am going to sit my Da and watch it again on Blu (I got the Studio 4K release for its language options, though it appears to have been an unlicensed released – ouch!) – great to have your detailed review to lean on!


          • I think you make some very good points about how the texture of the film and the performances make the film feel really substantial, even after repeated viewings. Holly (or Rollo as he is in the book) is so far from the conventional protagonist and as you say, Welles is quite extraordinary (can you imagine what it would have been like if Selznick had got his way and cast Noël Coward?)


            • It’s enough to make you shudder, isn’t it? It’s one of those cases where everything just comes together perfectly and removing any of the key elements would scupper it – the film would be weakened irreparably and we wouldn’t be talking about it like this today.
              Mind you, I understand Selznick was one of those who lobbied for the altered ending which we have, against Greene’s initial wishes. To give Selznick his due, that was the right decision.


              • Really? With regards to the ending, I was mostly under the impression that it was Reed who insisted on the change – depending on what you read, I get the impression that Selznick was almost completely ignored apart from the opening voiceover. Apparently he wanted it retitles ‘Night in Vienna’ …


                • I can’t verify that to be honest and I’m mainly going by what I gleaned from Wikipedia (yes, I know…) but there’s certainly no doubt that Greene and Reed disagreed on the ending initially – Greene admits as much here.


  3. Very Nice Colin. “The Third Man” is my number one favorite film of all time and every opportunity that arises, I pull it out once again. Like you said, there are so many layers here, and so much going on, it doesn’t matter if you just saw this masterpiece the week before. There are still new aspects to explore and enjoy. By the way-where was that Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Orson here? It is the perfect role to win that award!!! Anyways, thanks for the great post about a film that I could (and would) talk or watch, any time, any place!


    • Thank you Paul. It’s the kind of film which is a real pleasure to watch and talk about. It’s the multifaceted nature of this film which makes it such a rich experience and therefore ripe for repeated viewings.


  4. Excellent selection and dissertation, Colin!

    One of the great, perhaps greatest post WWII films. Including a no frills Black Market. The best and most brief entrance for Welles’ Harry Lime. And a surreal subterranean sewer chase.

    Always appreciated Richard Basehart’s criminal and his penchant for getting across L.A. unseen before a final chase and shoot out in He Traveled By Night . Through the film’s homage to The Third Man !


  5. I rewatched it a little while ago, and I was struck by how Welles was so much the villain of the thing, yet the reputation of the character is that of a good guy, with a radio show and a TV programme, besides. I think he’s the most misunderstood bad guy in movies! 🙂


    • Well quite. That’s one of the points I was trying to get across here myself. The film really makes no bones about the extent of Lime’s villainy, it’s made abundantly clear with Holly’s visit to the children’s hospital for example. And yet the character did morph into something heroic in the radio show and TV series that followed in the wake of the movie. I can’t see any other logical explanation for this phenomenon except the charismatic interpretation Welles brought to the role. Now that just highlights the talent of Welles as a performer – it’s no mean feat to manipulate viewer perceptions quite so deftly and completely.


      • It really must be that sheer gravitas and charm, for sure…who else could kill children and get killed trying to escape justice and still come off as relatively shining? I’m not sure if even Jimmy Stewart could pull that off!

        Thanks for the tight review; I think I’ll put it on and watch it again soon.


  6. Nothing new to add to the excellent review and additional comment, Colin, except to say that this is also one of my all-time favourite films, any genre. It all comes together so perfectly, with some fine performances – and once Anton Karas’ zither starts playing I am sucked in immediately!


  7. Colin, I appreciate the point you have made regarding the expansion of your perceptions of “The Third Man”, the more you have viewed it.

    I was first introduced to “Gone With The Wind” in the 1950’s whilst I was in my pre-teens, and was initially most impressed by the action scenes. As I have progressed through my “Seven Ages of Man”, (the film was re-released to theatres approximately every ten years), I found that my life experiences allowed me to gradually understand and appreciate the various “milestones of life” as encountered by the protagonists of the film. Coincidently my wife and I were recently discussing our affinity with “GWTW” – fortunately neither of us have ever felt the need to say, ” Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn !”

    Both of these exceptional films have pride of place in our collection of DVD’s and Blu-Ray discs. Colin, we both enjoyed your interesting comments – thank you.


    • Thanks for that, Rod. I think this is partially what’s meant by the phrase “standing the test of time” when it comes to film. When a movie is able to offer us something new, to reveal something which wasn’t apparent to us before, then it earns the label great.


  8. Incisive review of one of my favorite films. Sir Carol Reed at his best. Classic film noir. The clever angles, the misty sewer chases, Harry Lime and Holly Martens and Valli as the girl who loved both without fulfillment. The haunting zither music and, perhaps, the most haunting final scene ever. “The Third Man” really stands the test of time.


    • Yes, you’ve pretty much summed up all the strengths of the movie there. Everything, all the elements you mention, seems to come together perfectly. That doesn’t often happen – usually some parts work better than others – but when it does you get something special. Thanks for the comment, Garry.


  9. Great review, Colin – I love both Greene’s novella and this film. I recently saw an earlier British thriller that Greene also scripted, ‘The Green Cockatoo’, which isn’t all that successful overall, but still very interesting – John Mills plays a gangster and unfortunately has a lot of American-style dialogue (yeah… sure!) which sounds peculiar in an English voice!. But, anyway, I remember there is a scene in that with a character spotted in a dark street, which shows the way forward to the famous first appearance of Harry Lime.


  10. THE THIRD MAN never gets old. It’s always new. I’m glad you pointed out that the film would not have worked — at all — if another actor had played Harry Lime. Orson Welles is onscreen for only a short time, but he was so necessary. He’s the vital thread that makes the suit of clothes look stylish. He had an aptitude for theater and cinema that puts the rest of the industry to shame. In interviews, he consistently refuted claims that he had directed the film, bestowing all the praise and credit on Carol Reed. I do think, however, that Welles’ directorial approach “freed” other directors to try approaches they would not have tried otherwise, and certainly this is true of Carol Reed — who is one of England’s finest.

    Buy the blu-ray, Colin. Don’t try to justify it. Just buy it now. You’ll see more in it and get more out of it, I assure you.


    • Aside from his directorial work, Welles was a great screen presence. His performances as an actor are always a treat to watch even if some of the films he appeared in weren’t so great overall. On his contribution to The Third Man, I’m satisfied to believe that it’s all Reed’s work as there are examples of the directors own style to be found in his earlier work – particularly the excellent Odd Man Out.

      And I’m sure I will pick up the Blu-ray at some point – it’s a film that I do return to periodically.


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