more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

2015 Movie Challenge: The Third Man


4/52: A movie set in a place you always wanted to visit

I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the Black Market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough…had the money to pay. Of course, a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional. Now the city – it’s divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the center of the city, that’s international: policed by an International Patrol. One member of each of the four powers. Wonderful! What a hope they had! All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole, did their best, you know. Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit. Oh, I was gonna tell you, wait, I was gonna tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name is Lime, Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him, some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job. Anyway, there he was, poor chap. Happy as a lark and without a cent.

So begins The Third Man.  Once known as the City of Music for its embarrassment of musical riches (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, etc.), or as the City of Dreams for being home to Sigmund Freud, it had received the same treatment during World War II as so many other grand European cities: bombed to bits, left in piles of rubble; and, especially in the case of grand European cities that happened to have been in Nazi countries, kneecapped by economic and political interference from without.  The Third Man is about that grim postwar reality – and more, of course, but that’s the gist.


Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has received word from his friend, Harry Lime, that he could find work in Vienna.  Martins is a middling writer of obscure, pulpy Western novels, so he figures he can’t lose anything if he goes to see his best friend of 20 years.  When he arrives, he hears that Lime has been run over by a car and killed.  Rather than turn back around and go home, Martins decides to try to investigate.  Something, he feels, simply doesn’t add up.  Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a member of the British police in Vienna, strongly advises him to leave.  Lime, he says, was one of the worst racketeers in Vienna, and is better off dead.  Martins won’t stand for a case of possible murder, nor will he stand for his friend being slandered, so he looks up all of Lime’s old friends – including Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, credited here simply as Valli).  She, too, prefers for him to let sleeping dogs lie; if he’s dead, he’s dead, and nothing will change it.  Martins’s bumbling investigation gets her mixed up with the Russian police (Lime had obtained a false Austrian passport for her, when she was in fact born in Czechoslovakia), and gets someone killed, and makes a mess of most things.


That isn’t to say that he’s unsympathetic.  He’s deeply sympathetic.  Cotten could play right scumbags (like the delicious, evil Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt), but here he’s like a plucky kid in a coming-of-age story.  The trouble is that everyone else is in postwar Europe, and his bright-eyed, can-do Americanism does him (and everyone around him) a great disservice.  In fact, The Third Man – directed and produced by the British Carol Reed, co-produced by the Hungarian-born Brit Alexander Korda – is far less pro-American than most Hollywood movies of the postwar era.  Martins’s very puppydog nature, his willingness to rush headlong into things he doesn’t understand, isn’t exactly presented as a virtue; and Lime, proven even to Martins’s satisfaction to have been a heartless racketeer, is the American who thinks he can buy and threaten his way through anything.  The Europeans in the movie – Calloway, Lime’s slimy Austrian and Romanian business partners, poor tragic Anna – have all seen this before, and know they’ll see it again.  The Americans are the unwelcome intruders, in all respects.  I don’t think it’s meant to be a comment on the war itself – but I’m sure it’s meant as a comment on the postwar world, teetering on the brink of the Cold War.  But again – it’s not anti-American, per se.  It’s not pro-anything, either, but it’s not anti-American.

Something that struck me on today’s re-watch (because I’ve seen this quite a few times, as you might be able to guess): throughout the film, the Viennese really do speak German, and there aren’t any subtitles.  Part of this may be due to the fact that subtitles weren’t yet a common feature in foreign-language movies; they were more likely to be dubbed, I believe. (If any real film historians want to correct me on that point, please do.) I think it was a deliberate choice by Reed, however, and an incredibly clever one.  If, like Martins, you are blissfully ignorant of all languages besides English, you experience the movie basically as he experiences the diegesis thereof.  If, like Anna, you understand German and English, you experience the movie as she experiences the events therein.  This leads to a further disparity: if you know only English, you may have a slightly limited worldview and understanding of how things work, like Martins; if you know German and English, you probably understand more complexity and darkness – in Europe, at the very least – in the way things work, like Anna.


As for Vienna itself: yes, I’ve always wanted to go.  When I think of it, I think of the grand palaces, the musicians, the splendor, the intellectualism – but also of this, of this city reduced to rubble.  Obviously, it’s bounded back since then.  Vienna was lucky enough to escape the Soviet Bloc, so it got to build itself up again.  Now it’s a beautiful city again, fun and lively and all that good stuff.  The scars are sure to be there, however, and The Third Man – shot primarily on location, rather than on a Hollywood backlot – shows those scars back when they were still open wounds.  There are piles of bricks everywhere – piles of bricks that used to be apartment buildings, churches, music halls, who knows what else.  Enormous statues still loom over Martins and Anna, but surely fewer than there were before “the business” (as Calloway calls it) started in 1939.  It’s amazing – and terrifying – to see one of the greatest cities in the Western world as a decimated playground for racketeers, ineffectually policed by people who didn’t speak the same language.  The events depicted in The Third Man may be fiction, but the city wasn’t.

Okay, okay, enough historical rambling.  How’s the movie?  It’s great.  It’s absolutely peerless.  Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, and the dialogue is brimming with his bone-dry wit (especially from Calloway; he tells Martins, “I don’t want another murder in this case, and you were born to be murdered.”) The score, by Anton Karas, is 100% zither.  As the trailer proclaims: he’ll have you in a dither with his zither.  It’s perfectly Central European, perfectly postwar.  Reed heard Karas playing in a wine garden in Vienna, and asked him to do the music.  Excellent choice, Carol.

And I realize I’ve been avoiding talking about a certain co-star.  Yes, Orson Welles is in the movie.  Yes, he gives one of the snarkiest speeches in cinematic history.  But I’d hate to spoil the thrill, just in case you haven’t seen the film yet.  See it now, see it again, see it a lot.  You won’t regret it.


So long, Holly.


2 comments on “2015 Movie Challenge: The Third Man

  1. Karen
    January 25, 2015

    Ah, one of my favorite movies, and set in one of my favorite cities! Although it’s a city of waltzes and fancy pastries, there is also something noir-ish about Vienna. You should definitely visit. I can’t wait to return.

    Brilliant observation about the lack of subtitles! Poor Martins. Cotten was so perfect in this role. This is one of very few films I own, and you’ve made me want to go watch it again right now.

    • mcwhirk
      January 25, 2015

      Cotten is perfect all the time. I’d let him chase me through the sewers any day of the week.

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