By Carter B. Horsley
Because of its sensational and exotic cinematography
and generally lurid temperament, it is not uncommon for many people
to misattribute the direction of this film to Orson Welles.
Such a mistake is rather understandable since
Welles gives his finest even though very brief performance as
an actor and was still at the zenith of his celebrated career
as a director and the wunderkind of Hollywood.
Welles portrays Harry Lime, a disreputable
figure of mystery who does not make his appearance until the film
is almost half over. The first half of the film is devoted to
the search by his old friend, Holly Martins, played by Joseph
Cotton, in Vienna where he meets Lime's lady friend, Anna, played
by the ravishing (Alida) Valli, and runs into a military officer,
Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, who is also trying to
find the elusive Lime.
When Welles does finally appear, he proves
to be every bit the fascinating but frightening ogre as described
by the military officer, but also the rapscallion rapturously
loved by Valli. He dominates Cotton and embodies evil, both Mephistophelian
and raw. He is no mere rascal, or persona non grata, but an appalling
ingrate, a ruthless, unregenerate, incarnate force of evil. Rather
than a sly fox, Welles is a wily, stampeding elephant.
There have been many other charming villains
in the movies: Laurence Olivier's dentist in "Marathon Man";
James Mason in "North by Northwest"; Al Pacino in "Dick
Tracy"; and indeed most of the villains in the James Bond
What makes Lime so malicious is his manipulation
of the people he loves and the evident irony he sees in his own
decisions and actions. He has carefully weighed and measured his
alternatives and calmly abides by his decisions. He is neither
maniacal nor irrational, merely supremely selfish.
One could imagine some other actors in the
role; Zachary Scott could have been as malicious, but never as
charming; George C. Scott could have been as menacing, but never
as imposing; Christopher Lee could have been as frightening, but
never as riveting. Klaus Maria Brandauer probably could have done
the role almost as well, but might have been too likable, and
Robert Shaw had the power, but lacked some of the ingratiation;
William Holden and Peter Finch would have done very well, but
lacked some of the mystery. Marlon Brando, of course, would have
been very powerful, but his lightness was always too forced. Laurence
Olivier, Michael Caine and Sean Connery could have handled the
role superbly except that it calls for an American.
Welles here is handsome and hearty, brooding
and energetic. He is a black panther, ready to spring but also
unpredictable and patient, cautious but confident, steely and
stealthy, magisterial and not magnanimous, mighty, mean and magnetic.
This is the best "intrigue" movie
of all time and one of the top 25 films of all time and not because
of Welles's bravura performance.
Its greatness lies in its zither score by Anton
Karas, its cinematography, its tempo, its spellbinding settings
and its powerful disillusionment. Its chase scene through the
sewers of Vienna is one of the most memorable in the movies.
Alida Valli and Joseph Cotton
Joseph Cotton, of course, was a long-time acting
colleague of Welles's and his laconic, often bemused demeanor
coupled with his distinctive voice lull one not into a sense of
security, but incipient danger - he never seems fully alert and
here he is understandably befuddled in a foreign land and smitten
by Valli's beauty. He is the quintessential "dumb,"
but likable, American. One can easily accept that Cotton would
have been admiring of and dominated by Welles, and also that he
would be peeved at Howard's disciplined urgency and professionalism.
Howard, in the best role of his career, is
magnificent as Welles's pursuer. (He had worked previously with
director Reed in the film "Brief Encounter," one of
his few romantic leads.) Keenly intelligent and serious, Howard's
rugged looks, here with a thin mustache, and gruffness brooked
no nonsense. He was always purposeful, but not mean, an authority
figure whom one could respect. He and Harry Andrews were the stalwart
Englishmen whose "backbone" image convinced many that
right was on their side. Merely upholders and executioners of
the law/realm, they represented trust more than tradition, performance
more than pride. Their simplicity was sincere. For them, things
were black or white, not rashly and not without subtleties, but
upon reflection and with conviction. If they were not noble, they
were honorable, the personification of the "stiff upper lip"
school. Duty was not blind, but important, very important. Howard
and Andrews and the characters they so often portrayed did not
show their agonizing and self-doubts, but their participatory
pomp was not puerile but privileged and proprietary.
Howard's character, Calloway, indeed, is outraged
at Lime's dastardly deeds and his pursuit of him among the ruins
of a war-tattered Vienna is compelling. Should he care whether
or not Lime escapes? Why is it so important to bring one man to
justice when so many others need care?
Shot on location, the film has an authenticity
about it that captures much of the appalling disarray of a dismembered
Europe. One conjures the Surrealism of a Daliesque arm rising
up out of the ruins, muffled cries in the shadows, unfulfilled
destinies in the rumble.
The only other film to be so visually arresting
is "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." With its sweeping,
rakish angles, the film is Expressionist, but it does not let
its artistry interfere with, or distract from, the story, which
is compellingly told, greatly aided by the famous zither score,
a waltz that propels and twirls and entwines.
The key to the movie is the role of Anna, played
by Alida Valli, a dark-haired beauty whose looks recall the sultriness
of a Hedy Lamarr, or Romy Schneider. Because she is so lovely
and desirable, we assume that her lover, Harry Lime, must be a
pretty good character, a feeling that is reinforced by Cotton's
devotion to his own friend. When we learn that Lime is not very
wholesome, we then are puzzled by Valli's adoration of him. How
can love be so blind? Why don't we learn from our mistakes?
Anna is a mystery woman with forged papers
gotten for her by Lime, but she insists to Calloway that he's
"got it all wrong."
Holly is urged to leave Vienna by Calloway
but decides to stay when an Englishman, Crabbin, played by Wilfrid
Hyde-White, convinces him to stay and give a lecture to his literary
club in return for putting him up in Vienna for a few more days.
The movie's themes of the movie are the irrationality
of man, the power of evil and the importance of luck. Lime presumably
could be successful without resorting to racketeering. Anna could
find happiness without Lime. Holly is naive but happens to be
alert enough to pick up on some discrepancies about how Lime died,
especially when a hotel porter tells him that there was a "third
man" who helped move Lime out of the street after being hit
by a truck rather than two men cited in the police report.
Holly meets with Lime's old friends and with
Anna. He explains that he and Lime "drank too much many years
ago; we didn't do anything very amusing, just clever; he could
fix things... how to avoid this and that." Anna replies that
Lime "never grew up, the world grew up around him, that's
all - and buried him." Anna declares that she never wants
to fall in love again. Holly urges, "C'mon, have a drink,"
and she replies that "that's just what he would say,"
although she calls him "Harry" rather than "Holly."
Together they go back to Harry's hotel only
to find out that the porter is dead and a little boy with a ball
points to Holly and a crowd chases him, thinking he may have murdered
Holly gets carnapped and taken on a wild ride
that ends, to his surprise, at the literary club's meeting where
he is late for his lecture, which he had forgotten about and for
which he had not prepared. This scene is very Hitchcockean and
one of Harry's cronies appears at the back of the audience and
starts to ask rather intimidating questions such as whether he
believes in "the stream of consciousness." Flustered
and worried, Holly says he's working on a new book called "The
Third Man" that is a murder story based on fact. The questioner
asks if he is a slow writer, adding that Holly is "doing
something pretty dangerous this time...mixing fact and fiction,"
and then adding another question, "Haven't you ever scrapped
Holly tries to escape and runs into a room
and gets bitten by a cockatoo and then slides down rubble and
alleyways, all evocative of de Chirico and Kirchner.
He meets again with Calloway who criticizes
his "blundering around," reminding him that Vienna was
not Santa Fe, an allusion to his writing of Western novels, adding
that "you were born to be murdered." Calloway then reveals
why he is pursuing Lime. Lime stole penicillin and sold it greatly
diluted, causing great misery and deaths among those who desperately
Holly meets again with Anna, who has also seen
Calloway, separately, but she remains loyal to Lime, saying that
he was "real, not just your friend and my lover." Holly
retorts that "you talk like he had occasional bad manners...I'm
just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with
girls. You." He tries to play with Anna's cat but it bounds
out of the apartment and she explains that it only liked Lime
and it is soon seen cuddling up against a well-polished shoe in
a doorway. Holly leaves and is walking on the cobblestone plaza
outside the building when he hears some noise and turns and shouts,
"What kind of spies do you think you are, come on out."
Lime moves out of the doorway as the cat scurries
away and smiles just as running footsteps are head and he dashes
Calloway, aghast that Lime is alive, tells
Calloway who returns with him to the plaza where he finds nothing
and is about to leave when he sees a kiosk that leads to the city's
sewers and tells Holly that his vision of Lime "wasn't the
German gin," adding that "we should have dug deeper
than a grave." They proceed to open Lime's coffin and discover
the missing medical orderly, Joseph Haben, that had been an associate
Calloway surmises that Lime has crossed into
the Russian sector where he has no authority and urges Holly to
help lure him back. Holly eventually decides to help and tracks
down one of Lime's cronies and tells him to have Lime meet him
by a large Ferris wheel.
The next day Lime shows up: "Good to see
you, Holly!...what can I do, ole man?"
Holly tells him he has informed the police
that he is alive. "Unwise," replies Lime, ominously,
adding that "Holly, the world doesn't make any heroes outside
of your novels."
As they ride in a cab on the Ferris wheel,
Lime castigates Holly for going to the police and opens the cab
door as they are high in the air, noting that "there's no
proof against me besides you." Lime states that Holly would
be "pretty easy to get rid of, I don't think they look for
bullet wounds after you hit that ground." Holly then tells
him that they police found Harben. "Pity," answers Lime
who then has a change of mood and says "What fools we are"
and closes the door and offers to cut Holly in on his racket:
"Send me a message, don't be so gloomy."
Before they depart, Lime gives Holly a short
"You know what the fellow said: 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
that produce? The cuckoo clock."
In his fine review of the movie, Roger Ebert
notes that Graham Greene, the film's screenwriter, "says
this speech was written by Welles."
Holly convinces Calloway to help Anna with
her forged papers to prevent her from being taken back into the
Eastern sector and he again contacts Lime and arranges a meeting.
As the police trap is about to be sprung, however, Holly runs
into Anna in a restaurant and when she realizes that Holly has
betrayed Lime she declares that she "couldn't do a thing
to harm him" just as Lime enters to realize he has been trapped.
Lime bolts and goes into the sewers where he
is pursued by Calloway and his assistant and Holly. Lime is shot
but also shoots the assistant, played by Bernard Lee, and Holly
takes his gun and pursues the fleeing Lime in one of the most
visually stunning chases in movie history. Lime finally climbs
a stair to a street opening but is too weak to open the grating
and the shot of his fingers sticking up through the grating is
one of the most memorable in movie history.
Lime turns to see Holly pointing a gun at him.
Lime winks at him. As Calloway yells at Holly to be careful, we
hear a shot and then see Holly walking back towards Calloway.
The film ends as it began at Lime's funeral
where Anna throws dirt on his grave.
As Calloway is driving Holly away to catch
a plane to leave Vienna, Holly asks him to help Anna and he says
he will do what he can. As they pass Anna who is walking slowly,
Holly asks to get out, saying "One can't just leave."
The movie was produced by Reed, Alexander Korda
and David O. Selznick, its screenplay was written by Graham Greene,
Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his cinematography and Guy Hamilton
was the assistant director.
The CineBooks' Motion Picture Guide Review
on Microsoft Cinemania reported that Selznick initially wanted
Noel Coward to play the role of Harry Lime, "But Reed begged
for Welles and was lucky enough to get him." It also noted
that the ploy of faking one's death to pursue one's criminal pursuits
was employed by Eric Ambler in his novel, "A Coffin for Dimitrios"
that was made into the 1944 film, "The Mask of Dimitrios."
In his review,
Ebert notes that the final scene in "The Third Man"
is "a long, elegiac sigh." "It almost did not exist.
Selznick and Greene originally wanted a happy ending....Reed convinced
Greene he was wrong....Holly asks to be let out of the jeep. He
stands under a tee, waiting for her. She walks toward him, past
him, and then out of the frame, never looking. After a long pause,
Holly lights a cigarette and wearily throws away the match. Joseph
Cotten recalled later that he thought the scene would end sooner.
But Reed kept the camera running, making it an unusually long
shot, and absolutely perfect."
The very long shot of her walking and exiting
is as dramatic as the entrance of Omar Sharif out of the desert
in "Lawrence of Arabia," directed by David Lean more
than a decade later.
Ebert, who wrote that the movie "most
completely embodies the romance of going to movies," also
noted that it "reflects the optimism of Americans and the
bone-weariness of Europe after the war."
There are two versions of the film, the British
one begins with narration by Carol Reed and the American version
has narration by Joseph Cotton.
As a tale of corruption, love, loyalty and
friendship, "The Third Man" is without peer.