Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Stumbling After ‘The Third Man’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday June 22, 2007

Everyone talks about Harry Lime. He’s one of the most charismatic and cynical of movie villains, a cad who plays the people and police for suckers while justifying his crimes with glib insouciance.  

By the time the racketeer finally makes his appearance in The Third Man, everyone in the film has been talking about him for nearly an hour. And audiences and critics have been talking about him ever since. 

The film has been released on DVD in a new two-disc edition from the Criterion Collection that is rich in supplemental features that illuminate much of the on- and off-screen intrigue of Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir masterpiece. 

Over the years there has been no shortage of commentary on Reed’s brilliant direction and pacing; on Graham Greene’s finely crafted original screenplay; on Robert Krasker’s stunning black and white photography that presents a wet, murky portrait of post-war Vienna; on Anton Karas’ zither score and its effortless transitions from the jauntiness of Lime’s theme to suspense to romance to its wistful conclusion; on Orson Welles’ brief but riveting performance as Lime; on the famous scenes in the Vienna sewers, atop the Prater’s Ferris wheel, and in the shadowy nighttime streets; and on the strong performances of Trevor Howard and Alida Valli, as well as a number of supporting actors in sharply etched character parts. 

But what often gets overlooked in discussions of The Third Man is its leading man, Joseph Cotten.  

Cotten’s portrayal of the naive and blundering Holly Martins isn’t the flashiest role in the film, but it is the most crucial, for it is through his eyes that we see the labyrinthine plot unfold. He plays both the hero and the fool, stumbling about blindly through a foreign city and its web of blackmarket intrigue. He’s a heel, a well-meaning dweeb, a “dumb decoy duck,” as he describes himself in the end, and what a deft delineation of character Cotten achieves. 

Martins is a writer of cheap western novels who sees the world in the simplistic black-and-white, good-vs.-evil terms of his fiction. Martins arrives in Vienna to find that his friend Harry Lime is dead, and when a cop (Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway) speaks ill of Lime over drinks, Martins bristles, attempts to punch the major, and then seizes the opportunity to play the hero by investigating the circumstances surrounding Lime’s death in order to clear his friend’s name and expose the corruption of Calloway.  

Though he sees himself as a swaggering tough in search of justice, Martins is hardly noble, and he knows it. He moons after his best friend’s girl, aimlessly wanders through the rubble-strewn city, and even becomes responsible for the deaths of two innocent men along the way. 

All the while director Reed keeps us just as bewildered as Martins, with off-kilter images, foreign-language dialogue left untranslated, and a breathless pace that keeps us moving from scene to scene before all the implications have set in.  

Writer Graham Greene seems to have taken great pleasure in presenting Martins as the Ugly American—not to mention clumsy, naive and potentially dangerous. Greene himself may have been settling a score with this characterization. In an essay in the disc’s liner notes, Philip Kerr posits that Greene based the character on Robert Buckner, a producer and screenwriter responsible for a botched film adaptation of Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent. Buckner was also a writer of cheap western novels, thus Kerr explains the incessant mockery of Martins’ taste, talent and intellect.  

Whatever the source, Greene and Reed gleefully point up the folly of Holly at every turn. In the opening scenes, Martins cluelessly walks under a ladder, setting up a string of bad luck that will run throughout the picture; other characters damn his novels with faint praise or are completely unaware of them; and Calloway finally chastises Martins with the blistering put-down, “This isn’t Santa Fe, I’m not a sheriff and you’re not a cowboy.” Even in the final sequence amid the sewer, in a shootout situation that would have presumably been one of the staples of his fiction, Martins is oblivious to the danger of the situation, wandering out into the middle of a tunnel where he could easily be caught in the crossfire. He’s a liability and his naiveté eventually proves costly.  

It is in the sewer that Martins finally gets his chance to carry out his delusional fantasy. But when he takes gun in hand and tracks wounded Lime through the damp tunnels, he again botches his chance at heroism by playing not the cowboy but the loyal patsy, short-circuiting the pursuit of justice by taking down his friend in a mercy killing.  

His silly adventure culminates in the elegiac sigh of the film’s closing shot, as the disillusioned Martins, having lost his best friend and his self-respect, finally and with finality loses the girl. The somber fadeout leaves us with a pathetic solitary figure on an empty road, showing up the inadequacy of the cowboy’s simplistic mindset when confronted with foreign cultures and a determined criminal underworld—an all-to-relevant theme in these times.  


The new Criterion edition contains all the features from the company’s previous edition, including footage of the Vienna sewers, an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, a radio adaptation of the film starring Cotten, and an episode of “The Adventures of Harry Lime,” a weekly British radio series from 1952 starring Orson Welles as Lime, this time recast as a cosmopolitan confidence man and hero. The set also features several new documentaries on the film and its creation and two commentaries: One, by film scholar Dana Polan, is excellent, examining the inherent polarities in the film (noir vs. romance, comedy vs. drama, etc.) with an emphasis on the thematic and structural tensions in the film; the other, by director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, is less informative, as many of Soderbergh’s facts are contradicted by materials elsewhere in the collection, and the casual, off-the-cuff nature of the discussion comes across as amateurish and ill-prepared. 



Directed by Carol Reed. Written by Graham Greene. Photographed by Robert Krasker. Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles. 104 minutes. $39.95. 


Image; Joseph Cotten plays both the hero and the fool in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.