Sunday, January 16, 2011

Carol Reed | The Third Man

by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene (credited writer), Carol Reed with Orson Welles (uncredited writers), Carol Reed (director) The Third Man / 1949

I presume that most readers of an essay on The Third Man have already seen this classic 1949 film and are acquainted with its rather creaky plot. For those few who may be approaching this material for the first time (I’d suggest, however, they first view the movie), I’ll briefly recount the story.

As the opening narration—recited, in what I think is the most appropriate version, by director Carol Reed in the British cut, reveals post-World War II Vienna as a city divided into five sectors, controlled respectively by the Russians, the British, the French, the Americans and, at the city’s center, an international patrol—“all strangers to the place and none of them [speaking] the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German.” Although most of the action of this film takes place in the British and international sectors, the character at the center of the story is an American, Holly Martins, who has traveled to the bombed-out Vienna upon the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime, another American, who “had offered him, some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job.”

What Martins, a writer of American Westerns, discovers almost immediately upon his arrival is that his friend, Harry Lime, has just been killed in an automobile accident. The porter of Harry’s building briefly describes the death; but a short while later, a friend of Harry’s, Baron Kurtz, who, with Harry’s doctor, Winkel, arrived upon the scene immediately after, suggests a slightly different version of events of Lime’s accident, and Holly is confused by the inconsistency. Attempting to check into a nearby hotel, he is told by the British sector head, Major Calloway, to leave the city

CALLOWAY: Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don’t know
what you’re mixing in, get the next plane.
MARTINS: As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I’ll get the next plane.
CALLOWAY: Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to
the professionals.
MARTINS: Mind if I use that line in my next Western?

An accidental encounter with the head of a local cultural club, Crabbin, who invites Martins to lecture to his group, gives Holly the purpose and cash to stay on in search of the truth of his friend’s death.

One of Martins’ first encounters is with Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, suddenly the subject of questioning and a house search, where the British police uncover a forged passport (she is Czech-born and, accordingly, should be living in the Russian sector). It has been a gift, evidently, of Harry, and viewers immediately suspect that such acts of forgery and other minor criminal acts are at the heart of Calloway’s warnings. Lime evidently has a tradition of slightly unsavory activities, and, as we later discover, has previously left Martins in the lurch. But the underground activities seem limited to the context of petty thievery, the kind that the Baron and Anna both suggest is necessary to get on in post-War Vienna.

Soon after, Martins discovers from the porter that there were not two, but three men on the scene just after Lime’s accident; and almost immediately upon Martins’ relaying that information to the police, the porter is strangled. The search, briefly, turns to the discovery of who was the “third man.”

The quick-minded viewer immediately suspects what soon becomes obvious, that Harry himself was the “third man,” and, accordingly, brilliant scriptwriter Graham Greene reveals that Harry is alive by following the movements of a cat known to love only Harry. The scene where Orson Welles (Harry Limes) suddenly appears out of the hidden shadows of the Vienna streets is one of the most memorable of the film.

As Calloway proclaims upon being told of Harry’s reappearance: “Next time we’ll have a foolproof coffin.” Lest Martins continue in his delusion that his friend was merely a petty thief, Calloway details Lime’s criminal activities, among the most horrific of which is his buying up of penicillin, diluting it, and selling it back through the underground, acts which result in death and madness for adults and, particularly, sick children.

Meanwhile, Martins blunders through the city, demanding to see Harry during the daylight hours. Their encounter, high up on a Ferris wheel, is one of the most devastating portrayals of moral lassitude ever committed to film. As Martins confronts his “friend” with the facts he now knows, Harry uses nearly every standard line known to self-justifying criminals. Asked if he’s ever seen any of his victims, Lime responds:

You know, I never feel comfortable on these sorts of things. Victims?
Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of
those dots [pointing down at the people below him] 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

Lime further supports his own immorality with history and cultural stereotypes, boasting of his behavior by comparing it—in what has become one of the most quoted lines in film history (a speech comparable to that of Henry James’ worst European scoundrels)—with the Borgias, in opposition to democracy, symbolized here by the Swiss:

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in
Italy for 30 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 brother love—they had 500
years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo
clock. So long Holly.

Goodbye, indeed! To a film audience watching this only a few years after the War, Harry’s speech must have stood against everything for which they had just fought. Faced as we are nearly every week with the moral emptiness of business and political leaders it is hard for us today to comprehend just how shocking is Welles’ placidly glib defense of greed; does it still shock?

Even as Martins faces the possibility that he, too, might now become a victim of Lime’s disdain for human life, he still resists playing a role in his friend’s possible capture. Only Calloway’s “accidental” arrangement that Holly see for himself—through a visit to the children’s ward of the local hospital—the results of Harry’s actions convinces Martins to collaborate, ending in a dramatic chase through the Wienkanal (the channels of the Wein river on their way to the Danube) where Martins shoots his own friend to prevent his escape.

The film’s title seems to suggest—and most plot outlines even speak of it as (to use Hitchcock’s favorite term) the MacGuffin of the film—that the search for the third man lies at the heart of this work. As I have suggested, however, the whole issue of a “third man” exists for only a brief period in the film, and any seasoned reader of detective or murder mysteries might easily unravel the so-called mystery.

Upon recently re-viewing The Third Man I was more intrigued by another enigma of the film: why was Martins invited to Vienna in the first place? Even the narrative voice seems to be a bit confused about it, suggesting that Limes had offered him “some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job.” In the American version, the voice was that of Martins himself—which makes this confusion even more intriguing—the character himself doesn’t even know why he is there. And why would any normal person—exactly what Martins pretends to be—come to such a war-marked city with no money in his pocket and no real offer of a job, and, even more baffling, on the invitation of a friend who has previously left him in a lurch? Certainly we may suspect—Anna gives us some evidence and Martins hints of it—that Harry is a very loveable being; Welles plays him as just such a figure. But might this draw even a man as naïve and, apparently, ignorant (he has, for example, never heard of James Joyce) as Martins to a city where he is told, time and again, “everybody ought to go careful”? Just as important, if Lime is the kind of self-consumed monster he is portrayed throughout this film, why has he invited Martins? To deal him in on such nefarious schemes? To share some of the grimly gained loot?

Even if we were to imagine that Martins’ arrival in the city—with the expectation of a quick exit—might confirm Lime’s death to authorities, it seems a rather pointless and clearly unnecessary gesture. For it is precisely such blundering innocents who often gum up the works. Indeed, Martins is an absurd innocent—an inexperienced American who goes about the dark and nasty underworld of bombed-out Vienna shouting at the top of his lungs, “I want to see Harry,” “Is that you Harry?” and other such inane demands. Everything he discovers is immediately made apparent to all about him, ending in the temporary arrest of Anna and the death of the porter. Is it any wonder that at one point in the movie the whole city seems prepared to chase him down as if he were the murderer (Peter Lorre) in the German expressionist movie M. Not only is he dangerous—dangerous to both sides—but he’s a bore, as the attendees of the city’s cultural forum make clear in their mass exit of his lecture on “the novel.” He has nothing to impart, even to an audience willing to listen to a lecture on Hamlet one week and watch a “striptease” of Hindu dancers the next. His whole world seems to be encapsulated in the titles of what he himself admits are “cheap novelettes” such as Oklahoma Kid. John Wayne is, by comparison, a subtly profound being. Anyone who has read Greene’s The Quiet American recognizes Martins as one of his guileless and “innocent” Americans, in need of either control or extermination.

Why, one must ask again, is Martins invited to attend Lime’s death? Is the bird (a martin) simply drawn to the lime to become entrapped.*

One answer that I don’t want to make too much of but which equally I cannot quite ignore is that which also attracts Holly to Anna and puts the two in league with one another: both love Harry. Questioned by Major Calloway, Martins reveals some of his relationship with Harry, openly admitting not only that he knew him better than anyone else (“I guess nobody really knew Harry like he did…like I did”), but describing their first meeting “back in school: I was never so lonesome in my life until he showed up.” Later, he gushes, “Best friend I ever had.”
Obviously, one can make too much of their male bonding and their apparently long-lasting relationship. Yet, even if it is in Harry’s best interest to throw Holly off the Ferris wheel, he does not—at the very same time that he has sacrificed Anna to the Russians.

Anna, quite clearly, is of Harry’s world, the decadent Europe that the fallen Vienna represents. Even when told of Harry’s criminal actions, she refuses to participate in his capture, and warns him away from the meeting with Martins. Martins, on the other hand, represents something different, has qualities which Lime might once have had, but no longer possesses. It is almost as if Lime has invited Martins to his imaginary funeral to observe his real spiritual death—to become another kind of “third man,” a witness to the end of innocence. If Holly (a man with a self-admittedly “ridiculous” name) and Harry’s relationship is not a homosexual one, it is based on something far more unusual—upon a shared sense of purpose and meaning that we recognize by film’s end has been interminably lost.

Deluding himself up until the very last frame of the film, Martins declares his determination to “help” Anna, while we all recognize he is only seeking a replacement for the previous object of love. Anna’s long walk out of the screen without so much as a glance at her suitor is not simply a statement of her complicity with decadence, but represents her disdain of the moral superiority that Americans like Martins proclaim with their every gesture and act. In a city where all is hidden, twisted, perverted, with Holly Martins what you see is what you get: nothing but the dazed look of a man—an ugly American indeed—who has just seen any possibility of love walk out of his life. And, in that sense, the film has even greater significance today than it did in the post-World War II period. For all the universal love we Americans now seek, we must admit it is becoming more and more difficult to find.

*In the context of this film, it may be interesting to quote Webster’s dictionary definition of birdlime: Birdlime \Bird"lime`\, n. [Bird + lime viscous substance. An extremely adhesive viscid substance, obtained from the middle bark of the holly, by boiling, fermenting, and cleansing it. When a twig is smeared with this substance it will hold small birds which may light upon it. Hence: Anything which ensnares.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2007
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, V, no. 2 (Spring 2008).

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