If someone asked you to name a movie starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, I suppose your answer would be Citizen Kane. Well, here’s a different answer, “The Third Man.” And here’s another difference, Welles isn’t the filmmaker here, he’s just a supporting player. Of course, being Orson Welles in 1948 means that “just” has a little more to it than just “just.”
Joseph Cotton is Holly Martins an American writer of dime novel westerns. He arrives in Vienna which at the time is an occupied city divided into sectors controlled by the post-WWII victorious allies (the United States, Britain, France and Russia). This is narrated for us along with the realities of such a conquered place. The locals survive by supplementing their impoverished legal trades with black market transactions on everything from cigarettes to tires to adulterated pharmaceuticals. Holly has come to Vienna to work for his childhood friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). It is never explained what exactly he was supposed to be employed as but that quickly becomes an academic question.
When Holly reaches the building where Harry lives, he’s told by the building porter that Harry was run over by a truck and killed a day or two before. Holly goes to the burial and there we see the film’s other main characters although not all of them are introduced. After the funeral Martins is approached by two British military policemen, Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard and Sergeant Paine played with great cockney panache by Bernard Lee. It turns out Sergeant Paine is a literary fan of Matins’ novels and indirectly facilitates the plot by introducing Martins to a literary society in Vienna that will bankroll Martins’ travelling expenses in return for a lecture on modern literature, a subject with which Martins is sorely unfamiliar.
But what Calloway and Paine are really interested in is warning Martins to leave Vienna to avoid the fallout from the police investigation into the criminal activities of his friend Harry Lime. Martins is insulted by the statement that his friend was a criminal and decides to stay in Vienna to find out what really was the case with his friend and somehow clear his name with the police.
Through a meeting with one of Harry’s friends Holly finds out about Harry’s girlfriend Anna and he goes to see her to try and get the true story from her. As Holly and Anna talk about Harry, we find out that she is like Holly an idealistic individual that Harry charmed and dragged into his dangerous but exciting life. We begin to suspect that the police are right about Harry. And together Holly and Anna discover some strange details about Harry’s death. The building porter reveals to them that when Harry was run down by the truck, in addition to the two friends of Harry’s that stayed to give testimony to the police about the accident there was a “third man” who did not stay but rushed away. And the porter’s story differed from the account that Holly was given by Harry’s friends, in ways that could only be obvious lies.
As the couple begin to ruffle feathers there begins some fallout. Anna is visited by the police, including Calloway and Paine. It turns out that she has a passport that Harry manufactured. And because of this she will have to be deported to the Russian zone for eventual deportation to Czechoslovakia. Further fallout occurs with the subsequent murder of the porter. And finally, one of Harry’s “friends” threatens Holly if he continues looking into Harry’s death. When Holly defies him, some thugs pursue Holly through the nightscape of bombed out Vienna. He escapes and ends up at Anna’s apartment where we find that he is falling in love with her. But just when the movie is drifting away from Harry, Anna’s cat down on the street below her apartment signals that a stranger is lurking and when a window in one of the adjoining apartments flashes on, it reveals that the lurker is Harry Lime. Holly runs out to catch him but Lime escapes into an entrance to the sewers of Vienna.
And now Holly contacts Harry’s friends that he knows Harry is alive and wants to meet him in a public (safe) place; a giant Ferris Wheel nearby in the city. And sure enough, Harry shows up and they get into one of the cars of the wheel and talk. And now Holly learns the truth about Harry. He is the criminal mastermind who runs a stolen penicillin racket. Holly tells him that the police have discovered that a medical orderly that was in on the penicillin racket was murdered to provide Harry’s “body” for his faked death. When Holly confronts him with the deaths that have occurred from the diluted drugs he sells Harry reveals just how callous and Machiavellian he truly is. Harry reiterates his desire to have Holly join him in his criminal enterprise but he also clearly warns him that bringing in the police would be a very dangerous thing for Holly to do.
Holly decides that because of Harry’s poor treatment of Anna he will make a deal with Calloway to allow them to catch Harry in exchange for Calloway fixing Anna’s deportation problem. When Anna finds out that her freedom is being purchased at the cost of Harry’s betrayal to the police, she rejects it and also rejects Holly’s affection. She says she will remain loyal to Harry. Holly then decides to leave Vienna and leave Harry, Anna and the police to their own devices. But on the way to the airport Calloway brings Martins to the hospital where the child victims of Harry’s drugs are housed. Their broken bodies fill Martin with remorse and he agrees to be the bait in a trap to catch Harry. Harry shows up and at the last second Anna shows up and warns Harry away. A pursuit follows with police guarding all the exits from the sewer system. Holly, Calloway and Paine are in on the hunt. Finally with Harry cornered, Holly too openly approaches Harry. While Paine attempts to pull Holly back out of the line of fire, he is himself fatally shot by Lime. Calloway manages to shoot Lime as he retreats to a last exit below the street. Unable to exit the sewer grating he waits as Holly approaches him with Paine’s gun in hand. Harry looks at Martins and nods his head in acceptance and a shot rings out followed by Martins walking back to the police line. At the second burial of Harry Lime we see Calloway and Martins. Anna is there separately. Calloway has his jeep and is once again supposed to drive Martins to the airport. But as they pass Anna, Martins tells Calloway to let him out. The final shot is a long take of Anna approaching a waiting Martins and then continuing on without looking at him at all.
This is in many ways an utterly strange movie, especially from an American point of view. There is something disturbing to the American sensibility about the degraded and broken aspect of Vienna. This is communicated in the images of the broken cityscape but also in the furtiveness and guarded nature of the inhabitants’ speech and behavior. Dishonesty and criminality and just the wretchedness of life in the shattered place pervades the movie. Also, the film has a soundtrack that is a repetition of a song played on a zither. This is a stringed Eastern European instrument that I can’t claim to enjoy all that much.
By contrast, the Anglophone characters, Martins, Calloway, Paine and eventually Lime are wholly different. They exude energy and confidence. They seem to be bits of normalcy suspended in this fog of hopelessness. Even Harry Lime, the criminal mastermind has that American quality to speak openly and unashamedly even about his evil. He swims in this putrid ocean but he hasn’t assumed the coloration of his surroundings.
As I said the story is very strange and I think off-putting. But the scene at the Ferris Wheel is very interesting. We get to hear the devil defend his trade. And that I think is the interesting thing about the movie. Calloway and Paine are fun in their proper Englishness. The Holly/Anna relationship really didn’t do much for me. So, the show is Holly and Harry. And coming right down to it it’s Harry.
And the essence of Harry is his parting shot to Holly at the Wheel. “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. But 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. So long Holly.”
So Harry is the charming, interesting devil you know and like. The point of the story, if there is a point, is that charming and familiar as he is, he’s still the devil and you can’t let him kill kids even for old times’ sake.
So am I recommending the movie? Maybe I’m a bit of a xenophobe. I’m put off by the atmosphere of the movie. And I know that is mostly my parochial tastes. Because after all this is a film noir and they’re always supposed to exude seediness and unwholesomeness. I seem to excuse it in many of the film noirs from America. So, let’s say I call this a good film, which it is, but throw in some cautions for those who are xenophobic like me and despise zither music.