Film: The Third Man

"Don't be so gloomy. After all, it's not that awful. You know 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." note 

1949 British Film Noir set in post-war Vienna, directed by Carol Reed from a story by Graham Greene and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and Orson Welles.

Down-on-his-luck American writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives in postwar Vienna to meet with an old friend, Harry Lime (Welles), who has offered him a job. Unfortunately, the day Martins arrives, he finds out that Lime is dead.

Martins becomes entangled in a web of stories that make his pulp Westerns seem quaint in comparison. Investigating the death of his friend in order to clear his name from the selling of stolen and diluted penicillin he meets Lime's former love interest, a seemingly crooked cop, and a porter who has seen far too much. Martin's quest to clear the name of his friend drags him into dangerous territory and challenges his preconceived notions of good and evil.

The story takes many of the tropes commonly associated with Film Noir and plays with them. The film is also notorious for Orson Welles stealing the show in the final act, and for its hypnotic music score by zitherist Anton Karas (whose title theme became a huge hit).

Led to the Radio Drama series The Lives Of Harry Lime.


This film provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer: Justified. Vienna's real spacious sewers were used in the film.
  • Accidental Misnaming:
    • Martins keeps addressing Calloway as "Callahan".
      It's Calloway! I'm English, not Irish.
    • At several points Anna accidentally addresses Holly as "Harry."
  • Adaptation Distillation: The final film discards the happier ending initially written by screenwriter Graham Greene and appearing in Greene's novella of the story. Greene later said he preferred the film's ending.
  • Affably Evil: Harry Lime. It helps that he's played by Orson Welles, but he's significantly less sympathetic than Charles Foster Kane.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Anna gets the same lecture on how evil Harry is as Martins, but that doesn't make her any less worshipful of him. Her justification: "A person doesn't change just because you learn more about them." Apparently, Anna doesn't do Fridge Logic. Harry was always a sociopath. Though the reason she loves him, forging her papers and thus letting her stay in Vienna longer, stands regardless of what else Harry did.
  • Amusement Park: Lime gives the "cuckoo clock" speech inside the Ferris wheel at the city's Wurstelprater park.
  • Beleaguered Childhood Friend: The whole plot is essentially built around this relationship between Holly and Lime - except that Lime is believed to be already dead.
  • Big Bad Friend: Harry Lime.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
  • Bittersweet Ending: And how!
  • Book Dumb: Not knowing who or what James Joyce was, and not being informed of what literary components he uses in his cheap novelettes, Martins is literally book dumb.
  • Book Ends: The movie starts and ends with a funeral. Both funerals are for the same character, Harry Lime
  • Breaking Speech: Lime gives a tremendously powerful one on the Ferris Wheel.
    Lime: Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.
  • Broken Record:
  • Chekhov M.I.A.
  • Covers Always Lie
  • Deconstruction: Half the point of the movie is to question, dissect and generally shred American notions of heroism.
  • Delayed Coming Of Age Story: Holly has remained mentally a child his entire life. His books are cowboy tales with a Black and White Morality. Only in Vienna, at 35 years of age, does he at last come to face the reality of his relationship with his best friend Harry.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: This scene was done so effectively that it's been given a Shout-Out in several later movies, including Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, and The Coen Brothers' Millers Crossing.
  • Dirty Communists: A light example, but Anna faces deportation from the Russians for being from Czechoslovakia. Lime also mentions he does some work for the Soviets, in return for them turning a blind eye to his activities.
  • Dutch Angle: Possibly the best use ever in film.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Lime. Given the masterful use of shadows as one of his leitmotifs in the film, it may also serve as an accidental actor allusion.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Wounded and thus unable to make it outside the sewers, Harry nods at Holly to finish him off. One thunderous gunshot later, and Lime is done for.
  • Fake Shemp: Orson Welles dithered on showing up to Vienna for filming, arriving two weeks after shooting started. To shoot around this, others dressed in Welles' costume (appropriately padded to approximate Welles' emerging girth) for long shots.
  • Faking the Dead: Take a wild guess.
  • Film Noir
  • Forgotten Theme Tune Lyrics
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: At one point in the Vienna sewer chase, a painted "O5" can be seen briefly on a wall. This was the sign of an anti-Nazi resistance group in Austria during World War II. Most likely, that was not put there by the filmmakers.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
  • Grammar Nazi: See It Is Pronounced Tro PAY.
  • Happily Ever Before:
    • Inverted in an odd way — Graham Greene's novel, written at the same time as the screenplay, has a moderately happy ending.
    • A double inversion, actually. Producer David O. Selznick, who was known for happy Hollywood-style endings, insisted upon the bleak Did Not Get the Girl finale, even though screenwriter Greene, whose writing style was known for being incredibly depressing, originally intended to have the movie end with Anna embracing Holly after the funeral.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: Baron Kurtz now works as a blackmarketeer in post-war Vienna.
  • Humiliation Conga: Happens to the hero. Did we mention this is a Film Noir?
  • Idiot Ball: Holly Martins never met an idiot ball he didn't like. Unfortunately, he's usually not the one who pays for it.
  • Insert Cameo
  • It Is Pronounced TroPAY: Dr. Winkel, not Winkle.
    Martins: (...) Is it possible... that his death was not just an accident,... Dr. Winkle?
    Dr. Winkel: ...*Beat*... Vinkel. I cannot judge it, I wasn't there.
  • Kubrick Stare: Used by Baron Kurtz (albeit in a non-threatening context), making this trope Older Than They Think.
  • Lack of Empathy: Harry doesn't show any remorse for the victims of his fake penicillin.
  • Late to the Tragedy
  • Leave the Camera Running: The last minute of the film shows Anna walking down a street towards Holly, but she just walks right past without a glance.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Lime constantly uses people (notably Anna and Martins) and will throw them away without a thought when they're no longer useful to him.
  • Mercy Kill: Lime wordlessly asks Martins to shoot him once it's clear there's no escape.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: Martins is believed to be a more famous author by the character Crabbin. This is more developed in the novel, in which the rather macho Martins writes under a pseudonym who shares a surname with a famous novelist known for a "feminine" writing style (according to Word of God, the famous novelist was a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the very gay E.M. Forster)
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Martins is an American pulp Western writer.
  • Not My Driver: Subverted. Holly thinks his cabby is abducting him and is working for the conspiracy because he Drives Like Crazy and doesn't answer any of his questions, but the guy's really just driving him to the lecture he was scheduled to do (and is extremely late for) and doesn't speak English.
  • Not So Different: "If I offered you $20,000 for every one of those dots that stopped moving, would you really tell me to keep my money, or would you start calculating how many dots you could afford to spare?"
  • Novelization: An unusual case, as Greene wrote the story as a novel first without any intent to publish it, believing that going straight to the screenplay format would make him lose the soul of his idea. It ended up being published a year after the film's release.
  • Opening Narration: Done in the original UK release by director Carol Reed, and in the US version by Joseph Cotten.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: The screenwriter (author Graham Greene) wrote a book that was published to coincide with the film release with the British officer's POV. There was also a radio serial with Lime's exploits entitled The Adventures of Harry Lime.
  • Putting on the Reich: Many modern viewers may have noticed that the Vienna policemen's uniforms are original Third Reich police and army uniforms with merely the swastikas removed. It's Truth in Television; the film was made in 1949, and the police and armies had not yet been issued any updated uniforms so early after the war (not even for the filming). These uniforms would remain until well into the 50s.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Lime dies, Sgt. Paine dies, Martins Did Not Get the Girl, and said girl will most probably be deported back to Czechoslovakia to face Soviet law. Furthermore, the children who suffer from Lime's diluted penicillin will not get saved by Lime getting neutralized either. But hey, at least future patients will be safe from Lime's diluted medicines, and this counts as well!
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: It is famously used in order to emphasize how totally out of his area the American main character is when he visits Vienna.
  • Scenery Porn/Scenery Gorn: The production put a genuine and bombed-out Vienna to good use. About the only scenes other than interior shots not filmed actually on location were some set in the Vienna sewers; even much of that sequence was actually filmed in those sewers (the Wienkanal storm-runoff system, to be precise), with the sewer cops being genuine off-duty Vienna sewer patrol officers. (Some shots were recreations due to Orson Welles being two weeks late for shooting — thereby missing the bulk of the chase sequence filming — and his unwillingness to go down into the sewers himself.) Even today, Vienna is not above exploiting the fame of the film to attract tourists.
  • Sissy Villain: Lime's associate Kurtz certainly has his share of signifiers.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very much on the cynical side.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Lime is on screen for very little time, but there would be no story without him.
  • The Sociopath: Harry Lime. He cares only for his own benefit and seems like he considers people nothing but pawns to manipulate.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Anton Karas's bouncing melodies, happy harmonies and general bright zither playing over the one of the bleakest, most cynical films ever made.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: The cynical, post-war antidote to the optimism and hope of Casablanca. It contains many of the same story elements and inverts them.
  • Spiritual Successor / Spinoff: Welles later adapted three scripts he wrote for The Adventures of Harry Lime into the movie Mr. Arkadin.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Holly Martins, which is part of the point of the movie even though he survives. This is outright Lampshaded by Calloway, who says "[Holly] must have been born to get killed."
  • Virtue Is Weakness: Implicit throughout Lime's speeches to Martins, especially on the Ferris wheel.
    Lime: Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?
  • We Can Rule Together: Lime's basic line to Martins.
  • What Is Evil?: The famous cuckoo clock speech.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Holly Martins. At first.
  • Wolverine Publicity: Orson Welles.
  • World Half Empty
    • Justified considering the place and the year.
    • Or arguably Earn Your Happy Ending because of the place and year.
  • Would Hurt a Child: More accurately, "doesn't care if they die horribly in a hospital ward", but that's splitting hairs.