This is one of my favourite films. In it Orson Welles shows what real star quality is by dint of the fact that he’s hardly in the movie yet still manages to dominate it. The film is set in Vienna, a city for which, admittedly, I have a particular soft spot for. But that aside, like all great movies, the film has great characters, a riveting plot with an unrequited love story (or rather stories) to boot. It deals with universal themes such as betrayal, friendship, guilt, love, morality, all wrapped up in a well-told story, beautifully shot set against an unforgettable zither music soundtrack.
The story is set in Vienna after the war, still scarred with bomb-damaged buildings and where the black market is rife. It’s a city still occupied by the four powers, Britain, USA, Russia and France. A closed city, the city centre is run by all four countries who are trying to work together despite not knowing the city or speaking the same language – apart from a smattering of bad German! It’s a very different Vienna from the one that I knew in the 80s. Then Vienna was very safe, very bourgeois with little old ladies taking their little dogs round for walks in the city’s various parks. However, I do have a pang of home sickness when I hear Paul Hörbiger and the other Austrian actors speak with that unmistakable Austrian accent. If you speak German, it does bring a wry smile to your face listening to the Austrian characters talk and helps set the scene beautifully.
Nevertheless, into this war-torn city arrives Joseph Cotton’s character, Holly Martins, the naïve American abroad, who is there to meet up with his best friend since childhood, Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. However, as soon as he arrives at Harry’s flat, he hears from the porter (Paul Hörbiger) that Harry is dead, run down by a car in front of the house.
At Harry’s funeral he meets British policeman Major Calloway (the brilliant Trevor Howard) who informs him over a few drinks (Holly seemingly having drunk most of them) that Harry Lime was the “worst racketeer that ever made a living in this city”. Holly refuses to believe him. A writer of pulp Westerns, Holly seems to think he is a character from one of his own stories and is convinced that Calloway is using Harry as a means of closing his unsolved cases. Taken to Hotel Sacher he is introduced to Mr Crabbin from the British Cultural Education Section and invited to lecture on the contemporary novel. Holly jumps at the opportunity to stay in Vienna and clear his friend’s name.
Minutes later he gets a call from one of Harry’s friends, Baron Kurtz. They meet up and the Baron tells Holly how Harry died. However, his story differs from the one already told to him by the porter. When Holly goes to see Harry’s girlfriend, an actress called Anna Schmidt, she inadvertently adds more confusion to the story of Harry’s death by mentioning not only that his personal doctor happened to be passing at the time of his death, but the driver involved in the accident was in fact Harry’s own personal driver.
Intrigued, Holly goes back to visit the porter taking Anna with him. He hears from the porter that there was a third man at the scene of the crime that no one else has mentioned. Returning to Anna’s flat, they find that the police are in the midst of raiding it and Anna is found to be in possession of false papers and is arrested. Holly then goes to meet up with the other witnesses to Harry’s death, Dr Winkel and Mr Popescu. This is when Holly’s naivety proves to have fatal consequences. Holly tells Mr Popescu that the porter mentioned a third man. Whereupon Mr Popescu warns Holly that everyone ought to go careful in a city like Vienna. Unbeknownst to Holly, he has managed to get himself caught up with the worst racketeers in Vienna and has now let slip to them that the porter knows more about the accident than they thought. Not surprisingly the porter is murdered soon afterwards.
Calloway eventually decides to show Holly his file on Harry Lime. Harry has been trading in penicillin, stealing it from the military hospitals, diluting it to make it go further, with gruesome results for those who’ve been treated with it. As Calloway points out the lucky ones died, the unlucky ones went off their heads. “How could he have done it?” Holly asks. Calloway replies prosaically: “£70 a tube”.
It is over an hour into the film until we see Orson Welles but it is one of the best reveals in cinema history. His arrival has been subtly hinted at. The kitten, which only liked Harry, snuggling at the feet of some guy hidden in the shadows waiting outside Anna’s flat. Then the window suddenly throwing light on the person to reveal Harry (Orson) standing there. It turns out that Harry Lime was the Third Man at his own supposed death. The whole scene is beautifully lit, shot at angles, and in shadow, wonderfully atmospheric with the now famous zither music playing in the background.
Harry only appears 3 times in the film, but each scene is now firmly placed in film iconography. The next time we meet Harry, he and Holly are riding on the big wheel at the Prater Park. A testament to Orson Welles’ charm and star quality, you can’t help liking this morally reprehensible character. He’s clearly indifferent to Anna’s fate. No wonder, as he’s the one who told the Russians about her papers in the first place. Harry’s only real concern is for himself. From the top of the big wheel, Harry justifies his actions by asking Holly, as they look down on the people below, if Holly really would care, if offered £20,000, if one of those dots stopped moving or would he rather calculate how many dots he could afford to spare. Harry claims that no one thinks in terms of human beings any more. Governments don’t so why should they? Governments talk of the people and the proletariat, whereas he talks about the suckers and the mugs, and reassures himself with the platitude that the dead are happier dead anyway.
Holly agrees to deliver Lime to Calloway if the latter will get Anna out of Vienna. However when Anna realises this, she refuses to leave and allow herself be the price for Holly’s betrayal. Holly then decides to back out of his deal with Calloway and leave Vienna. On the way to the airport, Calloway takes Holly to see the children who have been affected by Lime’s penicillin racket. This time Holly agrees to go through with being the bait to lure Harry into a trap.
The penultimate scene is again iconic, set in the city’s sewers. The hunt for Harry is on. In the end, it is Holly who ends up killing his best friend though with the apparent acquiescence of a badly wounded Harry. The final scene depicts Harry’s funeral with Holly waiting for Anna who walks past him ignoring him completely.
The film raises questions about morality, betrayal and friendship. Anna loves Harry and is loyal to him despite finding out what crimes he has committed. Holly betrays him. Is it right morally to betray someone you love if you find out they have done something wrong or is the right thing to remain loyal, no matter what? Anna clearly seems to think it’s the latter. However, she’s being loyal to someone who had no qualms in causing death and misery to others in order to line his own pocket, and who in the end was totally indifferent to her fate and even conspired to make life difficult for her to save his own skin. Given these circumstances is remaining loyal really that admirable?
In the aftermath of the Second World War how do you define what is moral anyway? This was after all a Europe where not that long ago adhering to society’s rules could lead to your death, as witnessed by the countless Jews who registered with the police in accordance with regulations, and unwittingly assisted in their own persecution. How do you remain moral in immoral times in an immoral State, where morality had well and truly been stood on its head; where it had been legal to persecute, torture and execute people on a whim; where governments targeted civilian populations to bomb and obliterate; where the worst genocidal crimes were perpetrated in history and where trading on the black market was more or less necessary to survive war-torn Europe. As Baron Kurtz says, he has done things he would never have thought imaginable before the war. Harry’s trade in penicillin is clearly reprehensible but Harry would claim he is no better or worse than those in power who decided targeting civilian populations was a justifiable method to quicken the end of the war though albeit their reasons may have been less mercenary. After all, more civilians died in the Second World War than soldiers. It’s been estimated 40 to 52 million civilians died, compared to 22 to 25 million soldiers, thereby making it the first war in modern history where more civilians died than soldiers.
But the moral questions aside, The Third Man is just a great yarn. In his novels, Graham Greene was able to discuss complex moral and political issues and envelop them in a good story, and this film adaptation by him of his own novel The Third Man is no exception. Even without considering the moral implications that the film raises, it’s a riveting thriller, beautifully shot. It’s one of those films where everything conspires to make it a great movie, script, casting, direction, setting, artwork, and understandably it is considered by many to be the greatest British film ever made.