Discovering The Third Man
Thoughts on the greatest British film ever made
The Third Man is a detective story without a detective. Often hailed as one of the best British film ever made, Graham Greene’s story weaves two archetypal plots into its narrative. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is the Candide ‘innocent abroad’ who embarks on an Orpheus-like journey to discover the truth about his late friend, Harry Lime. Told more or less entirely from Martins’ point-of-view, the story finds Lime discovering that Lime (Orson Welles) is very much alive, albeit very much changed from the man he knew. Lime is now a corrupt, ruthless criminal. Ultimately, Martins comes to reach a ‘moment of truth’. Will he ally with Lime or help him turn to the authorities?
The setting of post-war Vienna is an important backdrop to the story. It is the kingdom that our hero travels to on his quest. But it’s turns out to be full of tests, trials and turns. There is a streak of duality throughout the film. Director Carol Reed shoots the city so that it appears normal by day but lends it a dark, desolate look at night. Here, the ravages of war are all too apparent and the city becomes a land of doom for Martins. His foreign innocence and naive optimism lead only to despair. The world has changed and it’s not the world he thought he knew. His childhood friend, on the other side of WW2, has become a villain, ruined like the collapsed buildings which fill Reed’s night-time scenes. The climax is a lengthy chase in Vienna’s immense, subterranean sewers. For Martins, it’s a labyrinth, a descent into the underworld. Instead of emerging triumphant with the ‘object’ of his quest, Martin destroys it. Something that would have been incomprehensible to him at the beginning of the story.
The other key figure in the story, of course, is Harry Lime. Reed’s theme of duality is even more noticeable here. A mystique surrounds Lime. We don’t see him until the mid-point of the story but an aura of his charisma pervades the film. He’s loved by Martins and his girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli). Yet, an uncomfortable truth lies under the surface. “He was about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”, reveals Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). When we do meet Lime, we find that he is indeed what Calloway said he was. Crooked, cynical and evil. He is no longer the beloved friend that Martins knew but a ruthless racketeer now detached from other human beings.
The Lime that emerges from the shadows (perhaps the most famous image of British cinema) embodies the shadow cast over post-war Europe. Cynicism. Corruption. Pessimism. This is the Harry Lime that Holly Martins finds in Vienna. Unlike many a hero’s journey, there’s no return with the elixir here. Only reality, truth and a shattered world.