Reflections on "The Third Man"

Written by Graham Greene

Directed by Carol Reed

Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles


A video presentation of this material is available here.


Post-war Vienna can be seen as something of a metaphor for battered and exhausted Europe shortly after WW2. While much remains intact, there is plenty of evidence of the Nazi-led conflict which plunged Europe and half the world into physical, emotional and moral turmoil.

Judged to be one of the first victims of Nazi expansionism, after the war Austria was declared an independent nation but was occupied by forces from the United States, Russia, the U.K. and France in order to rebuild the nation but also, presumably, to enforce rule of law and to protect against a Nazi resurgence. This was an area where political, social and moral systems had been undermined or even destroyed and the potential for humanitarian crisis, crime and corruption was readily recognised. The international character of this operation serves to underscore the potential universal nature of the themes touched upon, while linguistic problems emphasise the importance of communication and understanding.

It is against this background of existential crisis, pain, disillusionment, loss, distrust and confusion that pulp Western writer Holly Martins investigates the sudden death of his good friend Harry Lime. On the face of it this is a fairly straightforward matter but Holly's dogged determination and persistent questioning bring him in contact with a series of dubious characters whose contradictory evidence and suspect accounts eventually lead to the revelation of truth and then to unexpected consequences.

Holly encounters several of Harry's Austrian friends and acquaintances and while each has his own reasons for being involved with Harry, his schemes and his death, they all share a variety of characteristics. They all give the impression they are giving a false or incomplete account of themselves, may be involved in some chicanery, seem untrustworthy while trying to ingratiate themselves and seem to have little or no respect for truth or morality. They may be viewed as amoral pawns willing to participate in schemes that will benefit them without regard for others and it has been implied that Harry Lime was a master of such practices.

Other citizens, onlookers rather than participants, are keen not to involve themselves in the affairs of others. Having undergone years of dictatorship and moral, physical and political threat, they are reduced to adapting to whatever circumstance will best ensure their survival.

Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine represent authority, law and order. They, along with their international counterparts, enforce regulations. While they may appear officious, cold, inflexible and uncaring at times, we discover the fundamental purpose and humanity of their work as they try to protect against tragedy and defend the inhabitants of Vienna from scheming black-marketeers willing to put people's health and lives in danger in order to make a quick and substantial profit.

It is interesting to note that religion plays no part in this affirmation of order, apart from nuns caring for sick children. Clearly thought out rules and regulations, based on fairness and fact, are to be applied assiduously in order to combat potential crime, corruption and unfairness.

Anna, Harry Lime's staunchly supportive friend and lover, must have known duplicity, disillusionment and fear during the war years, but she has opted to be almost simplistically and insistently idealistic in terms of love, at least as far as Harry Lime is concerned. Her idolising love for Harry remains virtually unaltered even when she seems to accept evidence of his wrongdoing - she affirms that because she loved him in the past, she can and will do him no harm. At one point she even suggests that a person does not change just because you learn more about him or her. She appears to cling to this idealistic and blinkered form of love because she needs to believe in something positive, but surely this begs questions as to the validity and worth of such love or infatuation. It is worth noting that she is an actress by profession and she refuses to play tragedy. Is she trying to exercise control and avoid reality and pain by clinging to hope and making Harry a repository for her love?

Such complete and resolute devotion to love and idealism is surely indicative of denial and can lead to harm to both oneself and to others. She even turns against Holly when he eventually yields and agrees to aid the authorities in the capture of Lime, accusing him of base deceit and betrayal despite ample evidence of Lime's crimes and selfish conduct. To carry devotion to this level is surely self-deceiving lunacy.

Much is made of the fact that Holly Martins is a pulp Western writer. Unlike actress Anna who attempts to control her own response to events and people, Holly is a writer who tries to understand and steer events and others' perceptions. The fact he writes Western fare may reflect his core values.

In keeping with cowboy tradition, he may appear somewhat guileless at times - he falls for Anna almost instantly, is loud, brash, unruly and has a somewhat breezy approach initially, suggesting self-confidence and a certain lack of understanding and compassion for the time and place in which he finds himself. He shows loyalty and devotion toward his friend and cannot accept the authorities’ version of Harry's motives and activities so he sets out to investigate the circumstances of his death, which he finds suspicious, in the hope of clearing his name. He is unpretentious, principled and honourable, if inexperienced and perhaps naive and idealistic.

Eventually, Holly meets with Harry and Harry confirms the truth of the authorities' accusations. Rather like Anna, Holly reluctantly accepts his friend's guilt but will not take action against him until he is forced to confront the consequences of Lime's latest money-making enterprise when he is shown the victims of Lime's selling of diluted penicillin. He has also learned to act less like a principled cowboy and more like an astute participant in this game of life by setting a price for his involvement in Lime's apprehension - Anna's freedom to leave Vienna. Of course, this he does out of love and principle rather than for selfish reasons, though he clearly feels Lime is no longer worthy of his loyalty. That said, he agrees to act merely as bait and not to participate in his capture.

Reality and truth finally win out over brotherly love, devotion and idealism as Holly takes decisive action to stop Harry, with Harry's shooting of Paine being the final straw. Holly acts out of humanity and disillusionment. He is visibly shaken, perturbed and upset but he has evolved as a human being. He has learned to respect doubt and truth above love and friendship, and that there comes a time when decisive action must be taken.

He is undoubtedly disillusioned in the end but is perhaps more fulfilled and complete. Of course, he will also learn that not everyone shares his newfound and hard-won outlook on life as Anna walks past him (and away from her own past) without a flicker of recognition, once again exercising control and demonstrating her continued commitment to blinkered love.

Before we meet him, we hear a great deal about Harry Lime, both good and bad, from a variety of characters, reflecting different aspects of Lime's character and different perceptions of him. We see him for the first time more than halfway through the film and by that time we are thoroughly intrigued - is he the boyish extrovert, the faithful and jovial friend or the master criminal we have heard about?

The answer is that he is all of these things and more.

When Harry meets Holly at the Ferris Wheel, he exudes self-assurance and oozes charm, casually ignoring Holly's questions and asking questions of his own. He takes control. He displays a disarming openness and self-belief that is persuasive and manipulative, leaving the audience quite breathless and charmed while he casually tries to convince Holly of his case.

As he looks down (both physically and figuratively) at the "dots" of people scrambling around below their carriage, Harry suggests that the loss of a handful of humans is insignificant in the grand scheme of things and he clearly feels no remorse or sense of responsibility in making use of these "dots", even indirectly causing their deaths, in order to benefit him financially.

With these outrageous affirmations pronounced with casual conviction, Harry reveals himself to be something of an existential thinker. He has reached the conclusion morality and order do not exist but has such an ego that he seems to regard others as his playthings and has lost all sense of humanity, if he ever had one.

He shows no regard or genuine feeling for his lover Anna whom he clearly charmed and manipulated and is now using as a pawn vis-a-vis the Russian authorities to ensure his own escape. Holly recalls incidents from their youth which he presumably found amusing at the time but which he now sees differently, realising they revealed selfishness and callousness in Harry. Unlike Anna, Holly does see a person differently the more you learn about him or her.

It appears, then, that Harry has always harboured such feelings of humanitarian indifference and moral disorientation but presumably these have been enhanced by his wartime experiences. He is, however, a cynical hypocrite willing to manipulate and take advantage of those who believe in love, friendship, humanity, justice and freedom. His brilliant speech about the Borgias producing misery, murder and bloodshed but also genius while peace-loving Switzerland merely produced the cuckoo-clock is his final attempt to justify his stance and persuade his pal Holly to join him. This speech underlines his charm and eloquence as well as revealing his nihilistic mindset.

Harry Lime is a warning. He represents what man can become if he is selfish and has no respect for others and values. Love and idealism may have taken a battering and man may have been led to question the existence of God and morality in the course of the war, but the same experiences gave rise to fighting for values, defending truth and showing humanity toward others.

"The Third Man" is frequently referred to as a film noir. While it clearly depicts the consequences of amoral actions and motivation and warns against the result of excesses in love and loyalty, it also establishes the principles of humanity and integrity which lead to Harry's downfall and which offer hope for the future.

Director Carol Reed creates a tremendously noirish atmosphere. While darkness is used to convey lack of clarity and confusion, and is used ever more regularly as Holly becomes more deeply embroiled in the plot, light is used to accentuate understanding and clarity and is used to its greatest effect when Harry is revealed to us for the first time - the revelatory light offering a chink of comprehension and lucidity in the surrounding darkness of incomprehension.

Reed fills the screen with menacing close-ups, buildings reduced to rubble, ominous shadows and pursuits (often moving downhill, perhaps suggesting a descent into moral uncertainty) set in damp dark alleyways, all reflecting insecurity, doubt and uncertainty, both physical and spiritual, culminating in the pursuit through the sewers.

Perhaps representing the depths of humanity, this unsavoury underworld is a suitable setting for the comeuppance of one who has proved to be the lowest of the low, and it contrasts with other encounters with Harry - on the Ferris Wheel where he is cocky and superior, literally looking down on mankind, and as he approaches his final rendezvous with Holly, again looking down on the scene. Many shots of Harry are taken at an angle which suggests his superiority and even the shot of the cat licking his feet might be taken to suggest his power and charm.

The famous (and tremendously catchy) zither music by Anton Karas captures Harry's playful, charming and domineering personality.

The script by Graham Greene is dense and largely character driven, and contains any number of sly, engaging and thought-provoking observations on life (the Viennese inhabitants' desire to keep to themselves, Sergeant Paine's unquestioning implementation of duty in striking Holly while cheerfully engaging with him, Harry's friends who will do whatever they have to do in order to survive, Anna's refusal to give up her bedazzled view of Harry and Holly's slow abandonment of blind loyalty in the face of reality). This he manages to achieve while developing both the plot and the characters.

The acting is excellent throughout, though I would suggest that the scenes with Orson Welles in his playful, charming and challenging role, lift the whole to another level of entertainment and engagement.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I can be contacted at .

Stuart Fernie