Based on a story by Graham Greene, it charts the post-Second World War moral and material decay of Western Europe via the adventures of a naive American writer, Holly Martins, who goes to Vienna in search of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles on magnificent form). At first told that he is dead, Martins is then disturbed to discover that Lime is alive and stands accused of being involved in black market drug-dealing, indirectly causing the death and suffering of hundreds of people, and hiding out in the Russian sector of the rubble-strewn city. Eventually Martins finds him but the story does not end easily for any of the characters involved. Such a simple tale and yet somehow The Third Man has succeeded in becoming one of the greatest British films of all time, with one of the most famous and memorable scenes in all cinema.
The Third Man has become an indisputable classic of British cinema, a mystery thriller with a wonderful twist, drawing on noir techniques, themes, characters, and moods. However, before unravelling this film’s apparent ‘greatness’, it is worth pondering its status as a ‘British’ film. Well before critics and academics began debating the complexities of ‘transnational’ cinema, along came a feature that posed a challenge to most of the traditional ways of deciding the national identity of a film. But surely The Third Man’s credentials as a British film cannot be called into question? The film’s iconic pre-titles image of Big Ben and accompanying text clearly establish its production ‘home’ as London, its celebrated director and writer were both British, and it was one of the first films to benefit from a new grants scheme set up to boost national cinema production.1 And yet, before either Carol Reed or Graham Greene’s names appear on screen, the spectator is informed that the film is ‘presented by’ Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick. Korda was the Hungarian-born founder of London Film Production, whose Austrian-held account was called upon while filming in Vienna, while Selznick was already widely considered as one of the most influential Hollywood producers of all time.2 Furthermore, The Third Man tells the story of one American character (Harry Lime) from the point of view of another (Holly Martins), while the British actors Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee play only supporting roles. As Rob White points out, it would be ‘misleading to call it simply a British film, given the central involvement of Selznick, Cotton and Welles’ (2003: 9). Notwithstanding, while its national identity remains ambiguous, its status in British film culture is indisputable: in 2000, it came top of a poll of industry representatives designed to identify the best British films of the twentieth century, fighting off at least eight others made during the immediate post-war period when British cinema suddenly flourished.3 Moreover, it led to its director being considered one of the greatest British film-makers of all time.
Perhaps its anomalous national status is part of what makes The Third Man so distinctive, especially since ambiguity is at the core of the film’s thematic preoccupations. But of course the reasons for its longevity must extend far beyond its complicated production context which is already long forgotten. We need also to look at the way in which it draws so deftly on a range of cinematic influences, and crafts a story and characters of such interest as to create a work of overwhelming magnetism. Techniques of German expressionism, conventions of film noir and tricks of the thriller genre are all used to set up an engaging and unique portrayal of a post-war context that was steeped not in the more conservative ideals of conformity and unity, but in complex questions about the value of human life. Moral ambiguity is inscribed in its main characters, and the whiff of corruption, deception and betrayal pervades a city depicted as ravaged by conflict and ripped into four occupied zones along nationalist lines (British, American, French and Russian). In fact, the film foregrounds a constant blurring of physical, social, political and moral boundaries. Vienna is portrayed as a place of deep mistrust and a ubiquitous spy culture. Having suffered extensive damage from bomb attacks, its citizens are forced to survive despite relentless food and power shortages by relying on a thriving black market. The film’s shifting mood, from bleak cynicism to dark humour, is deftly achieved as national stereotypes are set up and then torn apart, preventing us from ever being really sure when to take things seriously. Much of what is regarded as important by the authorities – passports, border patrols – is ridiculed by the lack of respect paid to such conventions by most of the film’s main characters.
It is important also to emphasise the distinctive formal components of this magnificently composed film, since it is only through a thorough understanding of them that we can begin to comprehend the complexities of the chaotic situation it seeks to express. As Phillips has observed, ‘The Third Man is an accomplished example of the ways that mise en scène, cinematography, editing and sound can help reveal and support a film’s settings, subjects, moods, and meanings’ (2002: 179). While its cyclical narrative structure, starting and ending with the funerals (one a part of the deception, the other all too real) of one of its main characters is quite simple, what gives this film its classic status is its inventive cinematography and uncertain atmosphere. Robert Murphy describes it as a philosophical thriller, with just the right blend of: ‘realistic locations + slanting shadow throws + deeply diagonal night-streets. + strong, insolent, secretive faces + charged acting + zitheryslithery vibrations tangling and unwinding our nerves, teasing and haunting us like a ghostly gurdy-hurdy’ (2001: 144). Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning monochrome camera work accentuates the baroque contours of this once magnificent city, reminding the viewer of its high-culture status (statues and spires reaching up above the rubble) that has been largely deposed by a seedy underworld of criminality and deception.
The film’s opening moments are particularly remarkable for the neat and concise way in which so much information is quickly conveyed. The image over which the titles appear is almost abstract with its extreme close-up of the moving strings and sound-hole of a zither, the music from which establishes the film’s uncertain tone, jaunty and sinister at the same time as if concealing a sense of unease amidst its irritatingly upbeat chords. As Amy Sargeant points out, ‘the Anton Karas score pervades the film, endorsing both its location. and its mood: the famous Harry Lime theme is woven is woven into an almost continuous warp’ (2005: 167). The director himself then anonymously provides a brisk and ironic voice-over commentary as a swift montage of images gives further warning of the tone and concerns of the piece: street racketeers shiftily reveal cheap, fake watches hidden in suitcases, a dead body floats along the Danube, soldiers march up and down under instruction to defend artificial borders that mark the beginning of Cold War frontlines; classical buildings lie in ruins or cluttered by rubble.4
Amidst this rubble, Reed’s emotionally complex characters struggle with questions of loyalty and morality. Which is worse – betrayal of love, or deception and crimes against humanity? The answer should be clear but the beauty of The Third Man is that nothing is ever clear. Harry Lime may be morally repugnant, but he is charming and charismatic nevertheless. He doesn’t even appear until just over halfway through the film and yet – thanks to that zither – his presence is felt throughout. Even after his death, his influence is such that his girlfriend will not acknowledge the ‘friend’ who finally betrayed him, despite his offer of help. Meanwhile, this friend, Holly Martins, who should be the hero of the piece, is constantly found wanting. He has only come to Vienna because Harry has promised him a job, and then tries to steal his girlfriend’s affections. This girlfriend, Anna, is herself the embodiment of masquerade: as a comedy stage actress, she is used to performing for the sake of others and her grief at losing Harry is revealed only in her most private moments.5 As the object of the male gaze and passive until the final moments of the film (to Holly’s great disappointment), she operates in a kind of limbo throughout in terms of her own moral authority. Found guilty of identity fraud, she refuses to strike a deal with the authorities, but in taking that decision she becomes complicit in Harry’s crimes and thus the whole notion of loyalty is called into question. And so, it is left to Major Calloway, supported by his sidekick Sergeant Paine, to provide the moral backbone of the film, somehow bringing order to the chaos around him, sweeping up the mess and offering the voice of common sense. Perhaps this is what really confirms the film’s national allegiance: its apparent alliance of the qualities of decency and valour with Britishness, and those of treachery, malevolence and violence with the Americans, the Czechs, the Hungarians and the Russians. Anyone but the British.
The ending of The Third Man was the subject of a major dispute between Reed and Greene, the latter unconvinced that audiences would tolerate anything other than a happy conclusion with Anna and Holly leaving together. The choice of closing image is even more striking for its bold use of a long-held deep-focus shot that allows Anna to walk towards and then past the camera, as the Harry Lime theme plays out. It worried Selznick also for expecting audiences to wait until the end (he shortened it), but its mixture of suspense and defiance works a treat. As Murphy suggests, ‘like the strings pulling up the sails in a bottle it jerks everything into place’ (2000: 198). In the end, questions have been answered and order is restored as Calloway drives off to resume service.
1. This scheme was administered by the newly established Film Finance Corporation, and Korda was successful in winning a grant of £1.2 million to support the making of The Third Man.
2. Selznick provided substantial funding although this came at a price. As Rob White explains, the formidable producer ordered controversial cuts in the American version (removing unsubtitled German speech and shortening the ending), and it was 50 years before the British version of the film was properly released in the US (2003: 9).
3. The US version was included in a poll of 100 Greatest American Films. The UK version fought off such classics as Brief Encounter, The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death to come top of the British poll in 2000.
4. In all, 28 shots are shown in just 66 seconds of film during the montage sequence that opens the film. 5. Alida Valli (Anna) was already reasonably well known in Britain for her roles in Italian neo-realist films.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: London Film Production. Director: Carol Reed. Screenwriter: Graham Greene. Cinematographer: Robert Krasker. Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter. Music: Anton Karas. Cast: Joseph Cotton (Holly Martins), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway).]
Robert Murphy, British Cinema and the Second World War, London and New York, Continuum, 2000. Robert Murphy, The British Cinema Book, 2nd edition, London, BFI, 2001.
W. H. Phillips, ‘Expressive Film Techniques in The Third Man’, in Film: An Introduction, London, Palgrave, 2002, pp. 35–43.
Amy Sargeant, British Cinema: A Critical History, London, BFI, 2005. Rob White, The Third Man, London, BFI, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.