The Third Man - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

UK, 1949

Director: Carol Reed

Production: British Lion Films; black and white, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes, another version exists at 104 minutes. Released 1949. Filmed on location in Vienna.

Producers: Carol Reed with Hugh Perceval; screenplay: Graham Greene; photography: Robert Krasker; editor: Oswald Hafenrichter; art director: Vincent Korda; music: Anton Karas.

Cast: Joseph Cotten ( Holly Martins ); Alida Valli ( Anna Schmidt ); Trevor Howard ( Major Calloway ); Orson Welles ( Harry Lime ); Bernard Lee ( Sergeant Paine ); Ernst Deutsch ( Baron Kurtz ); Erich Ponto ( Dr. Winkel ); Wilfrid Hyde-White ( Crabbin ); Siegfried Breuer ( Popesco ); Paul Hoerbiger ( Harry's porter ); Hedwig Bleibtreu ( Anna's old woman ); Frederick Schreicker ( Hansel's father ); Herbert Halbik ( Hansel ); Jenny Werner ( Winkel's maid ); Nelly Arno ( Kurtz's mother ); Alexis Chesnakov ( Brodsky ); Leo Bieber ( Barman ); Paul Smith ( M.P. ).

Awards: Best Film, Cannes Film Festival, 1949; Oscar for Best Cinematography (black and white), 1950.



Greene, Graham, The Third Man , London and New York, 1968; as The Third Man: A Film by Graham Greene and Carol Reed , New York, 1984.


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Taylor, John Russell, Orson Welles: A Celebration , London, 1986.

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Wapshott, Nicholas, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed , London, 1990.

Wapshott, Nicholas, Carol Reed: A Biography , New York, 1994.

Drazin, Charles, In Search of the Third Man , New York, 2000.


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Gomez, J. A., " The Third Man : Capturing the Visual Essence of Literary Conception," and "Narrative Structure in The Third Man ," by W. F. Van Wert, in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Fall 1974.

Carpenter, Lynette, "I Never Knew the Old Vienna: Cold War Politics and The Third Man ," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), 1978.

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Fineman, Daniel D., in Magill's Survey of Cinema 4 , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.

Palmer, J. W., and M. M. Riley, "The Lone Rider in Vienna: Myth and Meaning in The Third Man ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 1, 1980.

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Man, G. K. S., " The Third Man: Pulp Fiction and Art Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1993.

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Naremore, J., "High Modernism and Blood Melodrama: The Case of Graham Greene," in Iris , no. 21, Spring 1996.

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Raskin, R., "Closure in The Third Man : On the Dynamics of an Unhappy Ending," in P.O.V. , vol. 2, December 1996.

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* * *

Carol Reed's The Third Man is a remarkably enigmatic film in many respects, drawing on a range of talents and traditions so broad as to raise the question of authorship in a particularly acute form. The film owes debts to the Grierson/Rotha tradition of British documentary film, as well as to the post-war neo-realism of Rossellini's Roma Città Aperta and DeSica's Ladri di Biciclette ; like its Italian predecessors, The Third Man studies the effects of post-war economic and social corruption within the context of a once grand though now rubble-strewn European capital (Rome for the neo-realists, Vienna for Reed). And debts are also owed to the moralistic detective fiction of Graham Greene (who wrote the original screenplay), as well as to the similarly Catholic tradition of Hitchcock's pre-war British thrillers (e.g., The 39 Steps ). But overshadowing all of these influences is the presence of Orson Welles in the role of Harry Lime. Welles wrote much of his own dialogue; as in Citizen Kane he is once again paired with Joseph Cotten, who plays his boyhood friend Holly Martins; even the film's overtly stylized use of camera angles, of expressionist lighting, of stairways, owes much to the Wellesian style. Indeed, The Third Man is very much a film about authorship, or about art more generally, and the issue raised is very much one of artistic ethics. Thus the film's three major characters are all artists of one sort or another— and the range of their actions and motives helps to define our sense of the film's theme.

Holly Martins, for instance, is a Western novelist (when asked about artistic influences he cites Zane Grey) whose initial interest in the investigation of the "death" of Harry Lime involves his conviction that Harry was a victim of "the sheriff" (i.e., the British military police) whose death Holly ("the lone rider") must avenge. Later he even says he is planning a new novel, based on fact, to be called "The Third Man." Likewise Anna—Harry's girlfriend (whom he betrays to the Russians)—is an actress; and her willingness to betray Harry involves both ignorance (she doesn't know he betrayed her) and a melodramatic sense of her role as the doomed man's mistress (she even sleeps in Harry's pajamas).

But clearly the film's central figure, its central artist, is Harry Lime himself. The complex relationship of money and art is a primary theme of the Wellesian cinema—and in The Third Man it finds vivid expression in the use Lime makes of art, to throw the occupation authorities off his trail and to further his traffic in black market drugs (diluted penicillin especially). Hence Lime plans and stage-manages his own death, even playing a part as "the third man" who helps to carry the body (actually, that of an implicated associate) from the street where it was run down by a truck; and he calls his boyhood friend, Holly Martins, to Vienna to serve as his stand in. The connection of art and corruption is confirmed in Harry's famous "cuckoo clock" speech wherein the political intrigues of the Borgias are correlated with the aesthetic triumphs of Michelangelo and da Vinci. There is something remarkably childish and self-indulgent about Lime's perspective—as evidenced by the fact that he utters the line at an amusement park. But Holly gets another view of childhood, when Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) takes him to the hospital ward populated by Lime's victims, all children; and "The Third Man," as Holly eventually "rewrites" the story, becomes a parable of social responsibility. It is Holly who finally pulls the trigger and puts the wounded Lime out of his cynical misery.

—Leland Poague

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