The Third Man

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Director: Carol Reed
Producers: Alexander Korda, Carol Reed, David O. Selznick
Writer: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Music: Anton Karas

  • Joseph Cotten — Holly Martins
  • Paul Hörbiger — Karl the porter
  • Trevor Howard — Major Calloway
  • Bernard Lee — Sergeant Paine
  • Alida Valli — Anna Schmidt
  • Orson Welles — Harry Lime

London Film; British Lion Film: 1949

104 minutes / black & white April 2011

Divided city, emptied men

Perhaps I am the odd man out in dissenting to the heaps of praise piled high around The Third Man — as though all this praise could conceal the rottenness at its core.

The critics' praise is fulsome, from one of the best films ever made to the best British film ever and so on. Well, the visuals are famously striking: stark black-and-white confrontations amidst chiaroscuro glimpses of Vienna. But what is the movie about, who and what has been filmed here, and why? Let's glance at the characters, structure, and message of The Third Man to discover what might justify such over-the-top praise for the film as a whole.

The setting is Vienna, Austria, just a few years after World War II. It is a contemporary portrayal of Vienna, when the city was still occupied and divided into administrative zones by the four Allied Powers: American, British, French, and Soviet. The aftermath of the war has many interesting but little-known aspects.

The one motivating character is Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), a racketeer taking advantage of post-war confusion and specifically of the tangle of porous borders and difficult-to-police zones in occupied Vienna. Film scholars believe that screenwriter Graham Greene modeled the character of Harry Lime on his friend and wartime colleague, the British intelligence officer, traitor, and Communist spy Kim Philby.

Lime's just-arrived pre-war American friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), Lime's lover Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and Lime's pursuers, British Army investigators Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine (Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee), as well as assorted minor characters — all of these trail along gloomily in the wake of the smugly cynical criminal. Not Harry Lime, nor Holly Martins, nor Anna Schmidt, is shown as notably bright, consistent, principled, or empathetic. When all is said and done, it's really hard to like any of them, and there's not much respect to go around, either.

A great opportunity for The Third Man's story was not developed, or more likely not perceived.

The primary plot centers on the police attempt to shut down Harry Lime's racket — but this is a type of crime and a manner of pursuit that would fit easily into any typical big city, any time. If this were printed detective fiction, there's material for an unimaginative short story here. There are critical turns in the plot which are contrary to any reasonable consistency in the characters.

The sub-plot is that of Anna Schmidt's residing in Vienna on a forged passport. Being a German-speaker born in Czechoslovakia, under the loathsome agreement of the victorious Allied Powers, if discovered she is liable for deportation back to Czechoslovakia. Winston Churchill already had, in March 1946, applied the phrase Iron Curtain to the hardening frontier between Western Europe and the captive nations of Eastern Europe, where Stalin's lengthened shadow weighed heavier and heavier as the brutal despotism of Soviet Communism imprisoned and stifled and buried more millions of victims.

In The Third Man, however, the occupation zones are portrayed more as inconveniences. Screenwriter Graham Greene has Harry Lime state that the Western forces and their leaders are no better than Stalin, and implies that the Allied bombing of the Axis Powers was done out of wanton brutality. Any actions that Harry Lime takes are of the same murderous ilk as the national leaders', hence no big deal. There are no values in this world, only the seesaw of advantage. As for the sub-plot, the movie implies that if Anna Schmidt is dragged back behind the Iron Curtain, it would be an annoyance.

Viewers who know something of the history of World War II, and of the tainted peace which followed, will know better.

For those who enjoy film noir, this is pretty noir. But what about the famous visuals? The cinematography is indeed often striking and even beautiful, and the fine zither music throughout lends a haunting atmosphere; but nothing can save the movie's nihilist philosophy, its flawed primary plot, and wasted sub-plot. Should you want to experience the striking visuals, you might try pretending that the movie is a silent from twenty years earlier, and watch with the sound turned off.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

The Third Man film site

Murray G. Hall interviews
Brigitte Timmermann and Frederick Baker on The Third Man & Vienna
at Virtual Vienna Net

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