The Third Man

  • The Third Man
  • Director:  Carol Reed
  • Date:  1949
  • Studio:  London Films Productions (UK)
  • Genre:  Film Noir, Mystery, Drama
  • Cast:  Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White
  • Format:  Black/White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  NTSC, R1 (Criterion Collection)

“Is that what you say to people after death? ‘That’s awkward.’ ” – Holly

“Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins.  Leave death to the professionals.” – Major Calloway

“Look down there, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000  [English Pounds Sterling] for every dot that you stopped – would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?” – Harry Lime

Holly Martins (Cotten) is a down on his luck American writer who jumps at the chance when his old childhood friend, Harry Lime, offers him a job in post-World War II Vienna. He arrives in a city that’s still literally digging out from the destruction and rubble of war, and a city that’s split into British, American, Russian, and French zones (so having your passport handy is of vital importance), only to find that his friend, Harry Lime, is dead. The police believe it to be an accident. Holly has trouble believing his old friend is dead. He starts to investigate – at first, merely to learn what happened. He talks to various people, the porter at Harry’s building who witnessed a few things about the time of the accident, Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, other friends of Harry’s, and becomes suspicious that not only was Harry’s death not an accident – but that something odd is going on in Vienna.

Harry also has several encounters with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British police for the British section, and his aide, Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee). When he takes his suspicions to the police, he’s told, not unkindly, that even if Lime was murdered, the police won’t waste resources investigating – because the man was a racketeer, involved in the Black Market, and most importantly he was involved in a scheme to steal, cut, and re-sell penicillin to sick and injured men, women and children – that resulted in several deaths, and a number of children with meningitis. As first, Holly doesn’t believe his old friend would be involved in such a scheme. Later in the film, Major Calloway shows him proof of Harry Lime’s involvement, and Holly reluctantly believes it. Still later on – Calloway takes Holly to a hospital ward filled with children who were left mentally disabled because of the tainted medicine and the resulting meningitis. There is considerable restraint in the scene, the audience doesn’t see the sick children – only doctors and nurses tending to them, some shadows and medical charts, and the reactions of Holly, Major Calloway, and Sgt. Paine.

Holly also spends time with Anna, Harry’s girlfriend. He begins to develop feelings for her – and she seems to return those feelings, but it’s not to be.

About halfway through the film, when Holly’s considering leaving Vienna altogether, he actually meets Harry Lime, who isn’t as dead as everyone thought.

The second half of the film turns into more of a moral dilemma for Holly. Harry wants him to join him in another scheme to make money, that would probably harm as many people as his last one if not more. Holly tries to get Anna to go with him – but she’s still in love with Harry. Anna’s been having her own problems – she’s living with a false passport, perhaps even a false name – because, as a Czechoslovakian she would be sent to Russia. Anna’s reactions throughout the film are influenced by her blaming Holly somewhat for getting her in trouble with the police and her undying and unexplained love for Harry Lime.

Meanwhile, Major Calloway holds his duty to turn Anna over to the Russians, because she’s an illegal immigrant, and the carrot of arranging her freedom over Holly as well.

Holly agrees to set-up Harry after Major Calloway presents him with proof of Lime’s involvement in the drug stealing and selling scheme. They also discover that the person buried in Harry’s grave is the missing hospital porter Calloway’s been looking for.

However, an encounter with Anna again shakes Holly’s resolve, he meets with Harry Lime, who turns out to be a real sociopath. Harry does not take up Lime on his implied offer to go into illegal business together someplace outside of Vienna.

Holly goes back to Calloway – who this time shows him the children in the hospital. Holly resolves to set-up Lime to help the police, especially as Calloway lets him have Anna’s passport back.

Anna – gets off the train (Calloway had also supplied a ticket out of Vienna), she sees Holly and blows up at him because she knows he’s setting up Harry. She even rips up her forged passport.

The conclusion of the film is a chase in Vienna’s sewers, as Holly, then the Major and his troops, then police from the other districts of Vienna all chase down Harry Lime.

The brilliance of this film isn’t in the overall plot, though the dead man who isn’t dead was probably somewhat novel at the time – the brilliance is in the details. The cinematography of this film is just incredible. Director Carol Reed uses all sorts of unusual, tilted, and strange camera angles, which alongside the strange score, act to put the audience at unease. This odd setting emphasizes for example, Holly’s isolation and grasping need to trust somebody. It sets all the characters apart, especially Harry Lime who towers over the film, despite not really being in it all that much. Lime is the “Third Man” of the title – referring to a Third Man who witnessed Harry’s death as described by a witness, whom everyone else involved denies was even there. The discovery of a “Third Man” is an early clue that Holly discovers and uses to try to find out who “killed” Harry Lime.

The setting of this film is also unusual. Vienna is literally pulling itself out of rubble. Piles of concrete, and stone dust, and bombed out buildings are in nearly every shot. Nothing looks new and almost nothing is whole. There is evidence of war in nearly every scene. Oddly enough, the sewers are the only structures that seem solid, not crumbling or broken – and they are far underground. But it isn’t just the buildings that are destroyed – the faces of the people, all very old or very young (except the main leads who are all probably in their 30s) – are a visual hint that the able-bodied men are all gone – and good young women don’t appear on the streets. Anna, who works in a theater singing comedy opera in German, isn’t exactly what the times would have called a “good woman”. The faces of the bit players, and the few people in the streets, have character – but they have also seen pain and destruction.

Overall, I would highly recommend watching The Third Man at least once. Visually it’s a film not to be missed, despite the bleak setting. I’d say it really needs to be seen because of the bleak setting.

Recommendation:  See it
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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