Despite the list I am working off being from the American Film Institute, The Third Man is actually a British produced film. Written by the great novelist Graham Greene, The Third Man is a film where the most memorable character in the entire film, the one everyone talks about, doesn’t even appear until the thing is two-thirds finished.
It’s worth the wait.
I’d known of The Third Man for quite some time based solely off the talk of the reveal of Harry Lime, the amoral black marketeer played by Orson Welles, and my search to see this one accidentally led me to get the title confused at one point and I ended up seeing Touch of Evil instead. Now, Touch of Evil is in and of itself a great film, where the only really bad thing I can say about it is Charlton Heston should have never played a Mexican police detective, but though that film had another brilliant, dark performance from Welles, it wasn’t The Third Man. Touch of Evil suggests the only way to find a bad man is with another corrupt man. The Third Man suggests we may not know our friends and loved ones as well as we might hope to.
Much of the film centers around Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp novelist coming to Vienna in the years after World War II to find his longtime friend Harry Lime. Martins is about as innocent a man as you can find in this film. He’s an American who makes a comfortable living and grows morally outraged by what he sees happening around him, especially as he learns more and more about what his friend Harry has been up to. Of course, when he arrives in Vienna, what he first discovers is that Harry died in a traffic accident.
Only it might not have been an accident. And Harry may not have been so innocent. He had made more than his fair share of enemies, and the local law enforcement, here divided amongst the Allied nations after the war, have their hands full dealing with the black market as it is. The opening narration explains that in a city where everything is scarce if you want to buy things legally, it is very possible to get whatever you might desire illegally. Martins’ biggest contact is with a British officer named Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), and all Calloway can do is urge Martins to leave Vienna immediately. Instead, Martins demands Calloway look into Lime’s death, an investigation Calloway has no interest in given what Lime was up to, something Martins is blissfully unaware of.
Conducting his own investigation, Martins goes through the shadow-filled streets of Vienna, meeting Harry’s friends, and these people seem to be increasingly shady as he goes along. This is the sort of movie where it might help if the viewer speaks what sounds to me like German. Martins doesn’t speak the local language and has to rely on translators wherever he goes, hoping to meet people with at least some level of English at their command. The best he can do is Harry’s girlfriend, Anna, an actress that Martins likewise develops feelings for.
The problem for Martins is that more or less everyone around him either knows more than they are inclined to say or is complicit in something sinister. Martins doesn’t believe his friend could have been up to anything illegal. It is only when Calloway shows Martins Lime’s file that Martins comes to believe that Harry Lime is perhaps the lowest criminal in Vienna. What has he been doing? Stealing penicillin from military hospitals, watering it down, and then selling it at high prices to civilians. And because the drugs are watered down, they are less effective than they should be, and many sick people (including children) have died as a result.
And then Martins discovers Harry is still very much alive.
That reveal is perhaps the most famous scene in the film, as the most famous actor in it finally appears on screen with a small grin, a light revealing him standing in a darkened doorway.
Welles here is, I would argue, less evil and more amoral. He doesn’t do what he does out of some maliciousness. It’s perhaps worse: he just plain doesn’t care. Meeting Martins on a Ferris wheel, he lays out his philosophy. What does he care if strangers die if he makes money off it? He suggests Martins would do the same in Lime’s shoes, an idea Martins rejects. Lime even drops his famous (and historically inaccurate) line that Welles largely ad-libbed.
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 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.
Should we be surprised that a rat like Harry Lime uses the sewers to escape? Or that he dies in one? No, but even with the death of Harry Lime, the city of Vienna still chugs along with its graft and corruption. Martins can return to America, but for poor Anna, there is only to be disposed of and deported back to the Soviet bloc nation of her birth without Harry to look after her.
As I watched it this time, two things did jump out. First, Martins shouldn’t be too surprised at Lime’s corruption given the story he tells about how Harry somehow knew the way out of an illegal gambling den the two visited years earlier. And second, there’s the zither used as the primary musical accompaniment.. At first listen, it may be a bit jaunty a musical instrument for such a dark tale, but is may be more melancholy than anything. If it is jarring, how appropriate is it that a jarring score be used for a film where the main character just plain doesn’t know his friend as well as he thought he did, and that such a close companion could be so much into the darker aspects of human existence with an amoral shrug.
NEXT UP: We’ve got the black military comedy from Robert Altman that somehow spawned a TV series that lasted far longer than the war it was set in, 1970’s M*A*S*H*.