Friday, September 22, 2023

The Third Man (1949)

According to the British Film Institute, The Third Man is one of the “five essential British film noirs.” Its website also notes that The Third Man is often “voted the best British film.” The screenplay by British novelist Graham Greene was based on the story that he wrote specifically to be used for the film (more about this later). It is a film noir that I think could convince anyone who says that they don’t like classic and/or black-and-white films to change their minds—it really is that good. And all that makes it a good choice for the Tenth Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon hosted by Terry Canote at his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts.

The film is introduced by a voice-over narrator. He could be one of Harry Lime’s friends and fellow black marketeer. The narrator explains that he came to Vienna after World War II, and he implies that he is a professional black marketeer: “Course, a situation like that does tempt amateurs but, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional,” this said over a shot of a body floating presumably in the Danube River. The narrator also explains a little bit about the situation in Vienna: how all the Allied forces (United States, England, France, and Russia) were in charge of governing what is now an occupied city. And he introduces the arrival of Holly Martins, who is planning to stay with his childhood friend Harry Lime.

See the credits for more about the narration at the start of the film; the DVD version from the Criterion Collection that I watched included the version narrated by Carol Reed.

Once the introduction is over, the narrative begins with American Holly Martins’s arrival in postwar Vienna. He has been invited to the city by Harry Lime. Martins writes pulp Westerns, but he doesn’t make enough money at it, so Lime’s proposal that he come to Vienna and write about the situation there sounds promising. When he arrives at the front door of Harry Lime’s apartment, he is told by Karl, the building’s porter, that Lime is dead. In fact, Martins just missed the coffin, which is heading to the cemetery for burial. Martins rushes to the cemetery in disbelief. At the gravesite, he meets British Major Calloway, who tells him that Lime is better off dead because he was facing serious criminal charges. Martins scoffs at this and decides to prove Major Calloway wrong by finding the real criminal. Martins’s subsequent (mis)adventures in Vienna are the basis for the film’s plot.

(This article about The Third Man contains spoilers.)

The Third Man is much more than a whodunit or a postwar crime story. It has a fantastic soundtrack involving a Viennese musician, Anton Karas, playing his zither, and the effect is a perfect complement to the action on-screen. At the time the film was being produced, the director Carol Reed didn’t know what a zither was, and it is quite possible many people outside Austria didn’t either. He saw a musician playing the instrument in a café and decided that both were perfect for the soundtrack. The music evokes a whimsical quality that manages to underscore, not detract from, the action. By the end of the film, after almost two hours of zither music, it begins to grate on the nerves, if I’m honest. But maybe that’s the point: Holly Martins’s adoration of Harry Lime is starting to grate on Martins’s nerves!

In spite of the numerous noir elements (betrayal, murder many times over, chiaroscuro lighting, tilted camera angles, postwar angst and rubble), the film has several humorous moments. For example, Crabbin of the British Cultural Center, the propaganda arm of the British government in Vienna, mistakes Martins for another British novelist. Crabbin corrals Martins into giving a talk on the modern novel, but Martins isn’t prepared for an intellectual discussion about James Joyce and the stream of consciousness as a writing technique. Other examples include the fact that Harry Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, is still in love with Harry; she can never remember Holly’s name and calls him Harry throughout, much to Martins’s frustration. (He imagines instead that he will be able to seduce Schmidt eventually.) When Karl, the porter in Harry Lime’s apartment building is murdered, Hansl, a boy of about five years old and the son of one of Lime’s neighbors, points the finger at Holly Martins when he arrives on the scene with Anna Schmidt. Hansl leads the charge when the neighbors pursue Martins and Schmidt. Major Calloway has several humorous lines in his dealings with Martins. He describes him as a man easy to murder, and he wants him out of Vienna so that he is not responsible for Martins’s death.

When Holly Martins learns that Harry Lime is actually alive, he arranges a meeting with him at Prater Park. The meeting is tense: Martins worries about Lime’s possible culpability and betrayal; Lime worries that Martins has talked to the police about his black market activities. But neither is ready to distrust the other one completely, not yet anyway. In this scene, Harry Lime delivers some of his most famous lines: “. . . 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 they produce? The cuckoo clock. [slight pause] So long, Holly.” Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, apparently added the line about the cuckoo clock. It adds a humorous note and thus relieves a little of the tension between Lime and Martins.

In the postwar period, the comparison between Swiss democracy and Italy under the Borgias probably sounded incongruous, as Lime intended. But it sounds a little less incongruous in 2023 after more has come to light about the secrecy and corruption in the Swiss banking system. (Click here for some information about Swiss banking practices at Wikipedia.)

The Third Man was shot on location in Vienna amid the rubble of World War II and in the underground sewer system, where Harry Lime maneuvers his way from one part of the occupied city to another. It’s another example of a postwar rubble film, but it’s easy to forget that Vienna is in ruins while watching Holly Martins trying to prove British Major Calloway wrong about Lime; it’s so easy to get caught up in the story and lose sight of the bombed-out buildings and the postwar poverty and desperation.

I’ve written articles about other rubble films. Click on each film title in the list below to read them.

The Search (1948)

Berlin Express (1948)

The Murderers Are Among Us (1946)

These three films are just a few examples of many rubble films.

As I mentioned, British novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, which was based on a story he wrote specifically to be used as the basis for the film. In the preface to the novel, Greene explains his reasoning for writing the story as a work of fiction first and how changes between the written word and the film came about. It’s an interesting read if you are anything like me: someone who enjoys both literature and film. For something that was never intended to be published in written form, the novel is quite an accomplishment, and it provides some background for the characters. The novel is told from Major Calloway’s point of view (he is a colonel in the novel). Throughout the novel, he reviews the police files about Harry Lime and his interviews with Holly Martins (Rollo Martins and a British citizen in the novel). He tells readers what he knows from his own investigation.

But it was Major Calloway’s speech to readers at the end of the novel that started me thinking. In that speech, he describes Martins as follows: “He was a very bad shot and a very bad judge of character . . .” (page 157). I started to wonder how Martins managed to be such a bad shot during wartime. Wasn’t he conscripted and taught to shoot during military training? Or was he hesitant about shooting Harry Lime in the end because he still felt some nostalgia for their friendship? Graham Greene never says.

During the war, Harry Lime probably went away without leave (AWOL)—if he was conscripted at all. But giving what I know about World War II military service and trying to avoid it, I would assume that Lime was drafted and just decided to go AWOL. And if he were successful at avoiding being caught by the military police (because they made it a point to catch all dodgers and apparently were very, very good at it), he probably wouldn’t have had much choice but to go into the wartime black market. Greene never explains this part of Lime’s background, and it was never addressed in either the film or the novel for him or for Holly Martins.

I saw the film several times and read the novel before I wondered at all about Holly Martins’s and Harry Lime’s backstories. I mention these points only because they gave me a new appreciation for the film’s story: I cannot call them flaws because I never would have noticed them without reading the novel. The Third Man deserves all its accolades. It’s a great story and a black-and-white classic.

This article about The Third Man is my entry for the Tenth Annual Rule, Britannnia Blogathon, hosted by Terry at his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts. Click here for a day-by-day list of links to their blogs. The list is updated each day of the blogathon, from September 22 to 24.

September 2, 1949, release date    Directed by Carol Reed    Screenplay by Graham Greene    Based on a story by Graham Greene    Music by Anton Karas    Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter    Cinematography by Robert Krasker

Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins    Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt    Orson Welles as Harry Lime    Trevor Howard as Major Calloway    Bernard Lee as Sergeant Paine    Wilfrid Hyde-White as Crabbin    Erich Ponto as Dr. Winkel    Ernst Deutsch as “Baron” Kurtz    Siegfried Breuer as Popescu    Paul Hörbiger as Karl, Lime’s apartment porter    Hedwig Bleibtreu as Anna’s landlady    Robert Brown as British military police officer in sewer chase    Alexis Chesnakov as Brodsky    Herbert Halbik as Hansl    Paul Hardtmuth as the hall porter at Hotel Sacher    Geoffrey Keen as British military police officer    Eric Pohlmann as waiter at Smolka’s    Annie Rosar as the porter’s wife    Joseph Cotten as the narrator (pre-1999 U.S. version)    Carol Reed as the narrator (pre-1999 UK and all post-1999 versions)

Distributed by British Lion Film Corporation (United Kingdom), Selznick Releasing Organizations (United States)    Produced by London Films


  1. I've greatly enjoyed your series on post-war "rubble" noir. The Third Man is definitely a distinguished member of a very interesting set of films. And I love your point about the zither music being a sort of metaphor for Harry - different, lively and ingratiating at first, but by film's end very much played out.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Brian! I have read a bit about The Third Man and about the use of the zither on the soundtrack, but I don't know if the intention was to provide too much of a good thing. Anton Karas went on to international acclaim after the release of the film, and I remember one of my sisters receiving a zither as a birthday present back in the day. But I can't be the only one who finds the zither music grating after almost two hours!

  2. I love The Third Man and, while I don't know that I would count it as the greatest British film of all time, I would definitely count it as the greatest British noir of all time. It is just incredible, and the rubble left over from World War II just adds to the movie. I do have to agree with you about the zither. After nearly two hours it does become grating! Like you, I have to wonder if that wasn't intentional! Anyway, thanks for taking part in the blogathon!

    1. I'll leave the the debate over best British film/film noir to you and the British Film Institute, Terry! I just know that I enjoy The Third Man every time I see it. Thanks so much for hosting the blogathon. It was great fun.

  3. You make a strong case for The Third Man winning over new Classic Film converts. It has the cynicism of the 21st Century, but a fascinating setting post-WWII. And the cinematography!

    Not that it matters, but you've convinced me to track down the novel. Then I'm going to watch the film again, with your review in mind.

    1. The novel is really short, so it won't be a large investment in time. I really enjoy the novel/film adaptation for most films. I find the process of adapting print to a visual art form fascinating. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. This movie is AWESOME--just the first scene alone is a masterclass in filmmaking. Oh my word.