The Third Man

Directed by Carol Reed,

with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Valli,

black and white, 104 minutes, 1948

By Carter B. Horsley

Because of its sensational and exotic cinematography and generally lurid temperament, it is not uncommon for many people to misattribute the direction of this film to Orson Welles.

Such a mistake is rather understandable since Welles gives his finest even though very brief performance as an actor and was still at the zenith of his celebrated career as a director and the wunderkind of Hollywood.

Welles portrays Harry Lime, a disreputable figure of mystery who does not make his appearance until the film is almost half over. The first half of the film is devoted to the search by his old friend, Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotton, in Vienna where he meets Lime's lady friend, Anna, played by the ravishing (Alida) Valli, and runs into a military officer, Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, who is also trying to find the elusive Lime.

When Welles does finally appear, he proves to be every bit the fascinating but frightening ogre as described by the military officer, but also the rapscallion rapturously loved by Valli. He dominates Cotton and embodies evil, both Mephistophelian and raw. He is no mere rascal, or persona non grata, but an appalling ingrate, a ruthless, unregenerate, incarnate force of evil. Rather than a sly fox, Welles is a wily, stampeding elephant.

There have been many other charming villains in the movies: Laurence Olivier's dentist in "Marathon Man"; James Mason in "North by Northwest"; Al Pacino in "Dick Tracy"; and indeed most of the villains in the James Bond series.

What makes Lime so malicious is his manipulation of the people he loves and the evident irony he sees in his own decisions and actions. He has carefully weighed and measured his alternatives and calmly abides by his decisions. He is neither maniacal nor irrational, merely supremely selfish.

One could imagine some other actors in the role; Zachary Scott could have been as malicious, but never as charming; George C. Scott could have been as menacing, but never as imposing; Christopher Lee could have been as frightening, but never as riveting. Klaus Maria Brandauer probably could have done the role almost as well, but might have been too likable, and Robert Shaw had the power, but lacked some of the ingratiation; William Holden and Peter Finch would have done very well, but lacked some of the mystery. Marlon Brando, of course, would have been very powerful, but his lightness was always too forced. Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine and Sean Connery could have handled the role superbly except that it calls for an American.

Welles here is handsome and hearty, brooding and energetic. He is a black panther, ready to spring but also unpredictable and patient, cautious but confident, steely and stealthy, magisterial and not magnanimous, mighty, mean and magnetic.

This is the best "intrigue" movie of all time and one of the top 25 films of all time and not because of Welles's bravura performance.

Its greatness lies in its zither score by Anton Karas, its cinematography, its tempo, its spellbinding settings and its powerful disillusionment. Its chase scene through the sewers of Vienna is one of the most memorable in the movies.

Joseph Cotton, of course, was a long-time acting colleague of Welles's and his laconic, often bemused demeanor coupled with his distinctive voice lull one not into a sense of security, but incipient danger - he never seems fully alert and here he is understandably befuddled in a foreign land and smitten by Valli's beauty. He is the quintessential "dumb," but likable, American. One can easily accept that Cotton would have been admiring of and dominated by Welles, and also that he would be peeved at Howard's disciplined urgency and professionalism.

Howard, in the best role of his career, is magnificent as Welles's pursuer. (He had worked previously with director Reed in the film "Brief Encounter," one of his few romantic leads.) Keenly intelligent and serious, Howard's rugged looks, here with a thin mustache, and gruffness brooked no nonsense. He was always purposeful, but not mean, an authority figure whom one could respect. He and Harry Andrews were the stalwart Englishmen whose "backbone" image convinced many that right was on their side. Merely upholders and executioners of the law/realm, they represented trust more than tradition, performance more than pride. Their simplicity was sincere. For them, things were black or white, not rashly and not without subtleties, but upon reflection and with conviction. If they were not noble, they were honorable, the personification of the "stiff upper lip" school. Duty was not blind, but important, very important. Howard and Andrews and the characters they so often portrayed did not show their agonizing and self-doubts, but their participatory pomp was not puerile but privileged and proprietary.

Howard's character, Calloway, indeed, is outraged at Lime's dastardly deeds and his pursuit of him among the ruins of a war-tattered Vienna is compelling. Should he care whether or not Lime escapes? Why is it so important to bring one man to justice when so many others need care?

Shot on location, the film has an authenticity about it that captures much of the appalling disarray of a dismembered Europe. One conjures the Surrealism of a Daliesque arm rising up out of the ruins, muffled cries in the shadows, unfulfilled destinies in the rumble.

The only other film to be so visually arresting is "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." With its sweeping, rakish angles, the film is Expressionist, but it does not let its artistry interfere with, or distract from, the story, which is compellingly told, greatly aided by the famous zither score, a waltz that propels and twirls and entwines.

The key to the movie is the role of Anna, played by Alida Valli, a dark-haired beauty whose looks recall the sultriness of a Hedy Lamarr, or Romy Schneider. Because she is so lovely and desirable, we assume that her lover, Harry Lime, must be a pretty good character, a feeling that is reinforced by Cotton's devotion to his own friend. When we learn that Lime is not very wholesome, we then are puzzled by Valli's adoration of him. How can love be so blind? Why don't we learn from our mistakes?

Anna is a mystery woman with forged papers gotten for her by Lime, but she insists to Calloway that he's "got it all wrong."

Holly is urged to leave Vienna by Calloway but decides to stay when an Englishman, Crabbin, played by Wilfrid Hyde-White, convinces him to stay and give a lecture to his literary club in return for putting him up in Vienna for a few more days.

The movie's themes of the movie are the irrationality of man, the power of evil and the importance of luck. Lime presumably could be successful without resorting to racketeering. Anna could find happiness without Lime. Holly is naive but happens to be alert enough to pick up on some discrepancies about how Lime died, especially when a hotel porter tells him that there was a "third man" who helped move Lime out of the street after being hit by a truck rather than two men cited in the police report.

Holly meets with Lime's old friends and with Anna. He explains that he and Lime "drank too much many years ago; we didn't do anything very amusing, just clever; he could fix things... how to avoid this and that." Anna replies that Lime "never grew up, the world grew up around him, that's all - and buried him." Anna declares that she never wants to fall in love again. Holly urges, "C'mon, have a drink," and she replies that "that's just what he would say," although she calls him "Harry" rather than "Holly."

Together they go back to Harry's hotel only to find out that the porter is dead and a little boy with a ball points to Holly and a crowd chases him, thinking he may have murdered the porter.

Holly gets carnapped and taken on a wild ride that ends, to his surprise, at the literary club's meeting where he is late for his lecture, which he had forgotten about and for which he had not prepared. This scene is very Hitchcockean and one of Harry's cronies appears at the back of the audience and starts to ask rather intimidating questions such as whether he believes in "the stream of consciousness." Flustered and worried, Holly says he's working on a new book called "The Third Man" that is a murder story based on fact. The questioner asks if he is a slow writer, adding that Holly is "doing something pretty dangerous this time...mixing fact and fiction," and then adding another question, "Haven't you ever scrapped a book?"

Holly tries to escape and runs into a room and gets bitten by a cockatoo and then slides down rubble and alleyways, all evocative of de Chirico and Kirchner.

He meets again with Calloway who criticizes his "blundering around," reminding him that Vienna was not Santa Fe, an allusion to his writing of Western novels, adding that "you were born to be murdered." Calloway then reveals why he is pursuing Lime. Lime stole penicillin and sold it greatly diluted, causing great misery and deaths among those who desperately needed it.

Holly meets again with Anna, who has also seen Calloway, separately, but she remains loyal to Lime, saying that he was "real, not just your friend and my lover." Holly retorts that "you talk like he had occasional bad manners...I'm just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls. You." He tries to play with Anna's cat but it bounds out of the apartment and she explains that it only liked Lime and it is soon seen cuddling up against a well-polished shoe in a doorway. Holly leaves and is walking on the cobblestone plaza outside the building when he hears some noise and turns and shouts, "What kind of spies do you think you are, come on out."

Lime moves out of the doorway as the cat scurries away and smiles just as running footsteps are head and he dashes off.

Calloway, aghast that Lime is alive, tells Calloway who returns with him to the plaza where he finds nothing and is about to leave when he sees a kiosk that leads to the city's sewers and tells Holly that his vision of Lime "wasn't the German gin," adding that "we should have dug deeper than a grave." They proceed to open Lime's coffin and discover the missing medical orderly, Joseph Haben, that had been an associate of Lime's.

Calloway surmises that Lime has crossed into the Russian sector where he has no authority and urges Holly to help lure him back. Holly eventually decides to help and tracks down one of Lime's cronies and tells him to have Lime meet him by a large Ferris wheel.

The next day Lime shows up: "Good to see you, Holly!...what can I do, ole man?"

Holly tells him he has informed the police that he is alive. "Unwise," replies Lime, ominously, adding that "Holly, the world doesn't make any heroes outside of your novels."

As they ride in a cab on the Ferris wheel, Lime castigates Holly for going to the police and opens the cab door as they are high in the air, noting that "there's no proof against me besides you." Lime states that Holly would be "pretty easy to get rid of, I don't think they look for bullet wounds after you hit that ground." Holly then tells him that they police found Harben. "Pity," answers Lime who then has a change of mood and says "What fools we are" and closes the door and offers to cut Holly in on his racket: "Send me a message, don't be so gloomy."

Before they depart, Lime gives Holly a short lecture:

"You know what the fellow said: In Italy for thirty 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 five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

In his fine review of the movie, Roger Ebert notes that Graham Greene, the film's screenwriter, "says this speech was written by Welles."

Holly convinces Calloway to help Anna with her forged papers to prevent her from being taken back into the Eastern sector and he again contacts Lime and arranges a meeting. As the police trap is about to be sprung, however, Holly runs into Anna in a restaurant and when she realizes that Holly has betrayed Lime she declares that she "couldn't do a thing to harm him" just as Lime enters to realize he has been trapped.

Lime bolts and goes into the sewers where he is pursued by Calloway and his assistant and Holly. Lime is shot but also shoots the assistant, played by Bernard Lee, and Holly takes his gun and pursues the fleeing Lime in one of the most visually stunning chases in movie history. Lime finally climbs a stair to a street opening but is too weak to open the grating and the shot of his fingers sticking up through the grating is one of the most memorable in movie history.

Lime turns to see Holly pointing a gun at him. Lime winks at him. As Calloway yells at Holly to be careful, we hear a shot and then see Holly walking back towards Calloway.

The film ends as it began at Lime's funeral where Anna throws dirt on his grave.

As Calloway is driving Holly away to catch a plane to leave Vienna, Holly asks him to help Anna and he says he will do what he can. As they pass Anna who is walking slowly, Holly asks to get out, saying "One can't just leave."

The movie was produced by Reed, Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, its screenplay was written by Graham Greene, Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his cinematography and Guy Hamilton was the assistant director.

The CineBooks' Motion Picture Guide Review on Microsoft Cinemania reported that Selznick initially wanted Noel Coward to play the role of Harry Lime, "But Reed begged for Welles and was lucky enough to get him." It also noted that the ploy of faking one's death to pursue one's criminal pursuits was employed by Eric Ambler in his novel, "A Coffin for Dimitrios" that was made into the 1944 film, "The Mask of Dimitrios."

In his review, Ebert notes that the final scene in "The Third Man" is "a long, elegiac sigh." "It almost did not exist. Selznick and Greene originally wanted a happy ending....Reed convinced Greene he was wrong....Holly asks to be let out of the jeep. He stands under a tee, waiting for her. She walks toward him, past him, and then out of the frame, never looking. After a long pause, Holly lights a cigarette and wearily throws away the match. Joseph Cotten recalled later that he thought the scene would end sooner. But Reed kept the camera running, making it an unusually long shot, and absolutely perfect."

The very long shot of her walking and exiting is as dramatic as the entrance of Omar Sharif out of the desert in "Lawrence of Arabia," directed by David Lean more than a decade later.

Ebert, who wrote that the movie "most completely embodies the romance of going to movies," also noted that it "reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war."

There are two versions of the film, the British one begins with narration by Carol Reed and the American version has narration by Joseph Cotton.

As a tale of corruption, love, loyalty and friendship, "The Third Man" is without peer.


This movie ranks 25th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films, 57th in the American Film Institute's Top 100, 56th in Time Out's Top 100, 33rd in the International Movie Data Base Voter's Top 250, and 59th in Mr. Showbiz's Top 100.

An excellent long essay on the film with extensive quotes from the script is at http://www.filmsite.org/thir.html.

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