Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Third Man (1949)
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The Third Man (1949) is a visually-stylish thriller - a paranoid story of social, economic, and moral corruption in a depressed, rotting and crumbling, 20th century Vienna following World War II. The striking film-noirish, shadowy thriller was filmed expressionistically within the decadent, shattered and poisoned city that had been sector-divided along geo-political lines.

The black and white, pessimistic film is one of the greatest British thrillers of the post-war era, in the best Alfred Hitchcock tradition, and beautifully produced and directed by Britisher Carol Reed. It was voted the #1 British Film of the 20th Century by the esteemed British Film Institute (BFI). It was co-produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda and American movie mogul David O. Selznick. Because Korda gave American distribution rights to Selznick (who cut eleven minutes from the original British version), the credits of the US version include Selznick references.

This was Reed's second collaboration with British screenwriter-author Graham Greene (after The Fallen Idol (1948)). It was based on Greene's novella of the same name, written solely to be a source text for the film screenplay and never intended to be read or published. It was a clever and original mystery tale simply evoked by one sentence written by Greene: "I saw a man walking down the Strand, whose funeral I had only recently attended." It told of a love triangle with nightmarish suspense, treachery, betrayal, guilt and disillusionment. Its two most famous sequences include the Ferris-wheel showdown high atop a deserted fairground with the famous cuckoo clock speech (written by Orson Welles), and the climactic chase through the underground network of sewers beneath the cobblestone streets.

In defiance of US producer Selznick, Reed boldly refused to cast Noel Coward in the Harry Lime role (played ultimately by Orson Welles), insisted on a downbeat ending and demanded that it be shot on-location in expressionistic, documentary-style. [Note: Cary Grant and James Stewart were also considered for the role of naive novelist Holly Martins (named Rollo Martin originally), ultimately played by Welles' Mercury Theatre actor and Citizen Kane (1941) co-star Joseph Cotten.]

The director knew that the film's musical score could not be reflective of the traditional Old Vienna - waltz music by Strauss. Instead, it would be provided by a solo instrument -- a zither. The jaunty but haunting musical score by Viennese composer/performer Anton Karas lingers long after the film's viewing with its twangy, mermerizing, lamenting, disconcerting (and sometimes irritating) hurdy-gurdy tones. In fact, Karas' musical instrument was a leading film character and advertised as such: "He'll have you in a dither with his zither (a laptop string instrument)." The insistent, chilling music sets a mood of polarized dislocations in the world (e.g., war and play, men and children) and in the corrupted city's 'no-man's-land' environment (with its bombed out, war-torn ruins, dark and slick streets, cemeteries and sewers criss-crossing beneath the sectored zones).

Surprisingly, it was nominated for only three Academy Awards in 1950, including Best Director, and Best Film Editing. Its sole Oscar was for Robert Krasker's vivid, atmospheric, moody black/white cinematography (although the final long cemetery walk scene was actually shot by uncredited German cameraman Hans Schneeberger). Unusually reckless, canted camera angles (one of their earliest uses), and wide-angle lens distortions amidst the atmospheric on-location views of a shadowy Vienna cast a somber mood over the fable of post-war moral ambiguity and ambivalent redemption. The deliberately unsettling, tilted angles reflected the state of the ruined, fractured and dark city, filled with black marketeers, spies, refugees, thieves, and foreign powers seeking control.

[Note: This was one of the first British films shot almost entirely on location. Others include writer/director Michael Powell's The Edge of the World (1937) and Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's The 49th Parallel (1941) (aka The Invaders).]

And the film once again teamed co-stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles of Citizen Kane (1941), in a tale of a foolishly-romantic, wimpy American writer (Holly Martins) of pulp westerns in occupied, post-WWII Vienna who tries to understand (and then decipher) the mysterious disappearance - vehicular accidental death and burial of an old school friend (Harry Lime) - who, unbeknownst to him, had become an exploitative, morally corrupt, and chilling black-market drug dealer and racketeer (of diluted penicillin), working out of the Russian zone. [Note: From 1951-52, Welles starred in a spin-off radio show titled The Lives of Harry Lime, a syndicated 52 episode series based on the adventures of his character in this film.]

Anglo-Austrian director Frederick Baker created a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, including interviews, with the documentary essay Shadowing the Third Man (2004). This deconstruction of the film revisited various locales of the original film and compared them to the present-day restored Vienna. It also provided an account of the battles between co-producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, and between scriptwriter Greene and Selznick. In the documentary, Greene admitted for the first time: "Carol Reed was right… he made a magnificent ending."

Plot Synopsis

The credits of the complex masterpiece appear over a huge close-up of the vibrating strings of a zither, playing "The Harry Lime Theme" or "The Third Man Theme." While various documentary-style shots of post-war, divided, fragmented and occupied Vienna (a 'frontier' city dividing East and West - and governed by four Allied forces) are surveyed, an anonymous voice-over (from director Carol Reed) delivers a first-person prologue in the original UK version - suggesting that he had black market connections. [The lines only found in the UK version are in red.]

[Joseph Cotten delivered the narration in the American release, delivering his own story - the lines in blue are only in the US version.]

I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and [its] easy charm - Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the Black Market. [Boots, stockings, cigarettes, and watches exchange hands.] [They could get anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay.] We'd run anything, if people wanted it enough- mmm - had the money to pay. Of course, a [the] situation like that does tempt amateurs, but [of course, they don't last long, not really, not like professionals] you know they can't stay the course like a professional. [A view of a dead body floating in an icy river.] Now the city - [A sign announces: "ENTERING THE AMERICAN ZONE."] it's [is] divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power - [Views of signs of the British, Russian, and French zones.] the American, the British, the Russian, and the French. But the center of the city - that's international, policed by an International Patrol, [A view of guard's duty being changed.] one member of each of the four powers. Wonderful. [You can imagine what a chance they had], What a hope they had, all of them strangers to the place and none [no two] of them could speak [speaking] the same language, except a sort of smattering of German. [Four guards in a jeep each represent their nationalities.] [Oh, they were] Good fellows on the whole, did their best, you know. [Views of bombed-out sites around Vienna.] Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit [a little, of course]. [Views of soldiers on guard, and then standing on parade and marching in a square.] Oh, I was gonna tell you, wait, I was gonna tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name is Lime, Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him some sort - I don't know - some sort of a job. Anyway, there he was, poor chap, happy as a lark and without a cent. [Anyway, I was dead broke when I got to Vienna. A close pal of mine had wired me, offering me a job doing publicity work for some kind of charity he was running. I'm a writer, name's Martins, Holly Martins. Anyway, down I came, all the way to old Vienna, happy as a lark and without a dime.]

An American, Western pulp novelist/writer of juvenile Western pulp stories (Zane Grey-style), Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) [a frivolous first name to define the nature of his character] arrives at the railway station in post-war ravaged Vienna - still under Allied occupation and overrun with black markets. A youthful, sappy counterpart to the film's dark, con-artist counterpart, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), Holly is there to seek out his boyhood friend who had vaguely offered him a job (and sent him an airplane ticket), inviting him there to stay with him and author/write propaganda for a volunteer medical unit he runs. As his passport is checked by a British MP, he asks about Lime. He tells the customs official he's going to stay with a friend at 15 Stiftgasse. The zither music dips, signifying that something is awry concerning the absence of Harry:

Lime, Harry Lime....I thought he'd be here to meet me.

Beginning his long, questioning search for Harry Lime, Holly makes his way to Stiftgasse 15, the location of Harry's second floor apartment, inauspiciously walking under a ladder leaning against the front of the residence. The building's architecture includes pseudo-Greek statuary, a facade of Vienna's past glory, now a city filled with corruption. [Goof: Note that the house number is 5 over the entrance to Harry Lime's apartment, not 15.] He is immediately shocked to learn from the German-speaking caretaker/Porter (Paul Hoerbiger), who is replacing a burnt-out light bulb, [a symbolic gesture of the repair of Europe], that Harry was recently killed on Thursday in a street accident - he was run over by a truck as he stepped from the sidewalk, and his coffin was taken ten minutes earlier to the cemetery:

An accident, knocked over by a car in front of the house, have seen it myself, killed at once, immediately. Already in hell [pointing up mistakenly] or in heaven [pointing down mistakenly]. Sorry for the grave diggers. Hard work. It is frost.

[The film both begins and ends with a funeral sequence and the burial of the same person.]

Holly hurriedly rushes to the gravesite in the cemetery to attend Harry's funeral. As he approaches, he inquires about the cryptic ceremony, and is told by a distant onlooker (later identified as Major Calloway): "A fellow called Lime." A priest is saying prayers in German at the gravesite as Martins arrives - there are only a few stoic-faced onlookers and one beautiful woman. [Later, we learn the two strange onlookers are "Baron" Kurtz and Dr. Winkel, later identified in the film. The Woman is Harry's Czech grieving mistress/girlfriend Anna Schmidt, a Russian exile and refugee.] After the ceremony, Martins is given a ride to town by cynical British military police officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who is stationed in the British sector of Vienna. As they ride down the main road, Calloway notices the attractive dark-haired woman who was at the graveside walking towards the city. He follows her receding figure while looking out the car's back window.

Calloway offers to buy Holly a drink and the scene dissolves to the inside of a bar, where Martins reminisces about his old chum whom he last saw in September 1939 - his thoughts suggest a latent homosexual attraction - and he identifies himself as an author of pulp Western novellas:

Holly: I guess nobody knew Harry like he did, like I did...back in school. I was never so lonesome in my life till he showed up...Best friend I ever had.
Calloway: That sounds like a cheap novelette.
Holly: I write cheap novelettes.
Calloway: I'm afraid I've never heard of you. What's your name again?
Holly: Holly Martins.
Calloway: No, sorry.
Holly: You ever hear of 'The Lone Rider of Santa Fe'?
Calloway: Can't say as I have.
Holly (with an American accent): 'Death at Double X Ranch,' uh, 'Raunch' (feigning an English accent)?
Calloway: Nope.

After learning of the improbable death of his friend, Holly is again stunned to learn from the acerbic Calloway that Harry was one of the worst racketeers and murderers wanted by the police (or sheriff, in Holly's western parlance):

[Him dying like that] It was the best thing that ever happened to him...He was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city...You could say that murder was part of his racket.

Believing in Harry's innocence as a petty crook, and wishing to prove Calloway wrong, Holly is enraged by the accusation that his friend is a racketeer who illegally sold not "gasoline (petrol) or saccharin" but something else. [Note: The artistic influences of his Western pulp novels, making him 'the lone rider' of his own stories, convince Holly, mistakenly, that Harry was a victim of Calloway - a 'sheriff' authority figure.] Holly tries to grab and slug Calloway (whom he mistakenly calls Callaghan), but the agent is protected from harm by Calloway's aide Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee). Paine, who knows of Martins' literary work, punches the drunken writer in the face and Calloway orders the "scribbler with too much drink in him" to be taken home to a British military hotel - and adds a harsh proposal that he leave on the next day's plane.

At Sacher's Hotel, a military hotel, Martins is introduced to Mr. Crabbin (Wilfrid Hyde-White) of the propagandistic C.R.S. of G.H.Q. (Cultural Re-Education Section), a literary entrepreneur who runs weekly shows (the last two were "Hamlet" and a "striptease" with Hindu dancers). Martins is invited as a famous American author to give a lecture on the "contemporary novel" at the Institute on the following Wednesday. [This allows time for Holly to remain in Vienna for a week to conduct his own investigation into the truth of Lime's death. In his ignorant search for the truth, he destroys his oldest friendship, the girl they mutually love, and in part, his own blind moralism.] After accepting the invitation to the lecture, Martins describes the beginning of his quest for truth about the maligned Harry Lime as a western metaphor:

It's a story about a man who hunted down a sheriff who was victimizing his best friend...I'm gunning just the same way for your Major Callaghan.

[Notice that in the film, two other characters' names are often mis-identified besides Calloway who is called "Callaghan." Anna persists in calling Holly "Harry", and Holly calls Dr. Winkel "WINK-el" instead of "VINK-el."]

Holly's story begins in an outdoors meeting at the Mozart Cafe where he has been invited to speak to ferrety, seedy Austrian aristocrat "Baron" Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), "a friend of Harry Lime." Kurtz is also an admirer of Martins' pulp novels, who flashes the book "Oklahoma Kid" at him. They return to the scene of the accident outside of Harry's apartment, where Kurtz tells what he witnessed. To reconstruct the horrible accident, Kurtz re-enacts what happened when Lime was hit by a truck. He describes how he and a friend carried Lime's body to a statue in the middle of the square where he died:

We came out of this place like this and were walking this way. A friend [a Rumanian friend of Lime's named Popescu] of his called to him from over there. Harry went across and from up there came the truck. It was just about here... (He looks down at the ground.) His friend and I picked him up, and carried him across over here. (A car honks) It was a terrible thing, terrible. We laid him down, just about here. And this is where he died. Even at the end, his thoughts were of you.

Martins learns that Lime's last words were to the effect that Kurtz should look after Holly when he arrived and see that he got home safely. Martins realizes the Porter's version of the story doesn't exactly coincide with Kurtz' version, and he wants to talk to other witnesses:

Martins: (Gesturing toward the porter) But he said he died instantaneously.
Kurtz: Well, he died before the ambulance could reach us.
Martins: So it was only you and this friend of his, uh, who was he?
Kurtz: A Rumanian, Mr. Popescu.
Martins: I'd like to talk to him.
Kurtz: He-he has left Vienna.

After a brief few words with the Porter, Holly asks further questions of Kurtz, including how he is intrigued by the woman at the cemetery. Holly presses Kurtz for information, but Kurtz was reluctant to divulge much more. He does learn, however, that the woman is employed at the Josefstadt Theatre as an actress/showgirl:

Martins: Wasn't that girl there (at the cemetery)?
Kurtz: Some girl from the Josefstadt Theatre. You know what Harry was. You oughtn't to speak to her. It would only cause her pain.
Martins: Oh not necessarily. She'd probably want to help.
Kurtz: What's the good of another post mortem? Suppose you dig up something - well, discreditable to Harry?... (cryptically) But I still think it won't do Harry any good. You'd do better to think of yourself.
Martins: (chuckling) I'll be all right.

At his military hotel when he returns, Holly is presented with a plane ticket sent by the persistent Calloway for the next day's plane. He refuses to take the ticket from Sgt. Paine: "You tell the Major I won't need it. Oh porter, order me a ticket tonight for the Josefstadt Theatre."

At the Josefstadt Theatre that night after the performance, Holly introduces himself to the woman from the cemetery, "Miss (Anna) Schmidt" (Alida Valli). The dark-haired woman looks shattered and depressed by the sudden death of her onetime lover. Martins suggests that maybe Harry talked to her about himself - as an old friend - but she responds: "No. He never told me about his friends." Holly wants to know more about her relationship with Lime. [All three of the major protagonists of the film are artistic or authors in some way: Holly is a Western writer, Anna is an alluring actress, and Harry 'authors' his own illusory death.] Anna exudes a fatalistically-romantic attraction for Harry:

Holly: You were in love with him, weren't you?
Anna: I don't know. How can you know a thing like that afterwards? I don't know anything more except I want to be dead too.

According to Anna's additional information about Lime's last words, Holly was surprised that Harry had allegedly also asked Kurtz to have Anna cared for just before he died - even though he died almost instantly or quickly. She also shares more details about the tragic accident, adding to a series of suspicious coincidences:

  • Harry was killed by his own truck driver
  • the incident was witnessed by only his closest friends (Popescu and Kurtz), and no other strangers, except for the Porter
  • Harry's own doctor (Winkel) was passing by just at the time of the accident
  • Harry was pronounced dead on the scene

Anna: That [Kurtz] was the man who brought me some money when Harry died. He said Harry had been anxious at the last moment.
Holly (recognizing the same concern Lime felt for him, with some surprise): He said he remembered me too. It seems to show he wasn't in much pain.
Anna: Doctor Winkel told me that...
Holly: Doctor Winkel, who's he?
Anna: A doctor Harry used to go to. He was passing just after it happened.
Holly: His own doctor?
Anna: Yes.
Holly: Were you at the inquest?
Anna: Yes. They said it wasn't the driver's fault. Harry had often said what a careful driver he was.
Holly (astonished): He was Harry's driver?
Anna: Um-hum.
Holly: I don't get it. All of them there - Kurtz, this Rumanian Popescu, his own driver knocking him over, his own doctor just passing by? No strangers there at all.
Anna: I know. I've wondered about it a hundred times, if it really was an accident. What difference does it make? He's dead isn't he?...
Holly: The Porter saw it happen.
Anna: Then why worry?

Up to this point, Holly had never really considered murder as the cause of the accident, but now suspects that all the evidence points in that direction.

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