Analysis of ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man is a 1949 British noir film directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene, from a novella Greene wrote to flesh out the story, but which wasn’t originally meant to be published. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Valli; it costars Wilfred Hyde-White, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, and Siegfried Breuer.

The film is noted for its superb cinematography, sometimes inviting comparisons with Citizen Kane (even to the point of making some think mistakenly that Orson Welles was involved with the writing and production), and for its distinctive music, all played on a zither by Anton Karas, its composer. It is regarded as one of the best films of all time.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

A recurring theme in The Third Man is the relationship between illusion and reality. The charming zither music gives us a sonic sense of how quaint Europe comes across to American visitors, as we see with Holly Martins (Cotten–“Rollo Martins” in the novella) when he gets off the train, having reached Vienna. Anticipating getting a new job from his old boyhood friend, Harry Lime (Welles), Martins is eager to reunite with him. That zither, however, gets plaintive and gives off a dissonant chromaticism whenever scenes get tense, a sonic shift from pleasant illusion to unpleasant reality.

Similarly, we see all the beautiful sculpture and architecture of Vienna, but it’s juxtaposed with the rubble of destroyed buildings, since this is postwar Vienna, divided into zones controlled by the US, the UK, France, and Soviet Russia. Cold War tensions are in the air. The illusory charms of Europe quickly give way to the reality of WWII horrors.

The illusory pleasantness of Vienna, as symbolically understood through the zither music, is further changed to unpleasant reality when Martins learns that Lime is dead, having been hit by a car…or so we understand. After attending the funeral with such people as Lime’s ex-lover, comedic stage actress Anna Schmidt (Valli), Major Calloway (Howard) of the British Royal Military Police, “Baron” Kurtz (Deutsch), and Dr. Winkel (Ponto), Martins goes with Calloway for drinks in a bar.

Illusions are further broken when Martins learns from Calloway that Lime was involved in one of the worst rackets in Vienna. Drunk Martins doesn’t like to hear Calloway say that his late friend has been responsible for people’s deaths, and that Lime’s own death is the “best thing that ever happened to him,” so Martins tries to punch Calloway, but instead is hit by Sergeant Paine (played by Bernard Lee), who works under Calloway.

Martins begins trying to find out what exactly has happened to Lime, and the first man he talks to about this is Kurtz, an associate of Lime’s who explains how, after Lime was hit by the car, two men carried him off the road (Kurtz and a Romanian named Popescu [Breuer]), Dr. Winkel arrived, and Lime died soon after that.

Martins hears the testimony of others, including Schmidt, who is reluctant to speak about Lime. Karl (Hörbinger), Lime’s porter, however, lets it slip that there was a third man who helped carry Lime’s body. These contradictory accounts make Martins suspicious of foul play, and cause us to see further rifts between illusion and reality.

This sense of suspicion and disorientation that is growing in Martins is symbolized by the extensive use of the Dutch angle in this film. The tilted view of events on the screen suggests not just his looking askance at what people are up to, but also our looking askance at it. What he, and we the audience, see is a distortion of reality, an illusion that alienates him and us, the new visitors of Vienna.

In the novella, Kurtz wears an obvious toupee, and when Martins visits him at his home (pages 2 and 8 of the link to the novella), he sees the toupee in a cupboard, and Kurtz is not bald. Martins surmises that the toupee has been part of a disguise, “useful…on the day of the accident,” another illusion furthering his suspicions of Kurtz.

Testimony about the late Lime that Martins hears, given from the multiple perspectives of Calloway, Kurtz, Schmidt, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu (an American named Cooler in the novella) suggests the influence of Citizen Kane. Indeed, we’ll eventually learn that Lime was…and is!…as unscrupulous and narcissistic a businessman as Kane was.

In the novella, when Martins talks with Dr. Winkel in his home about Lime (page 3), and Martins hears the doctor’s laconic answers, we read a description of the copious examples of religious art and icons the doctor owns. These include a crucifix with Christ’s arms above His head; Winkler explains that this rendering is meant to show how He died, in the Jansenists‘ view, only for the Elect–arms up high to indicate how high are those who merit salvation, as it were. This is representative of the narcissism of those involved in Lime’s racket: only they ‘deserve’ to live.

Karl has been murdered for his loose lips about the third man, and some suspect that Martins, one of the very last people to talk to the porter, is his killer. Those involved in Lime’s racket wish Martins would stop his investigating.

Martins is put in a car and hurriedly driven somewhere. We suspect, as he does, that the driver has been paid to have him killed. This fear soon turns out to be yet another illusion, for the driver is actually taking Martins to the gathering of a literary club, organized by Mr. Crabbin (Hyde-White), where Martins, a novelist himself, is expected to lecture on and answer questions about all things literary.

So Martins, as a writer, is also a creator of illusions. Having a novelist as his story’s protagonist seems to be Greene’s way of making a private commentary on his own illusion-making as a writer. Indeed, the careful reader of Greene’s novella will note that it is a first-person narrative given not by Martins, but by Calloway, who is oddly able to know many of Martins’s private actions and thoughts (Calloway’s having spies follow Martins everywhere, or to have Martins tell him all that’s happened, can’t possibly account for all of the exposition of Martins’s inner thoughts and motives).

Small wonder a writer of Greene’s calibre didn’t originally want the novella published; at the same time, the later publishing of so slightly-revised a narration gives us an interesting commentary on literary illusion-making as illusion.

The literary snobs in Crabbin’s gathering ask Martins, a writer of Westerns, about all kinds of high-brow concepts (stream of consciousness, how to categorize James Joyce‘s work, etc.). Martins’s idea of great writing is Zane Grey, much to the disappointment of Crabbin et al. The illusion that Martins is a writer of their lofty literary ideals has been shattered, since along with Grey as an influence, he cannot answer their questions to their satisfaction, and they leave.

In this scene, we also have an interesting comparison of the illusion-making of authors with that of the racketeers, in the form of Popescu asking Martins about his writing (menacingly implying that he should stop it if he wishes to be safe), with Martins’s bold, defiant answer that his ‘new book’ will be called “The Third Man,” a work based on fact (i.e., the crooked circumstances that have led to Lime’s death), not fiction (his supposedly accidental death on the road).

Popescu’s men then chase Martins out of the room. He goes up a spiral staircase, of which we get an upwards shot. It symbolically suggests Martins’s attempt to escape the hell of the Viennese racketeers (and the pretentious literary types) and up into the heaven of safety. Such heaven and hell symbolism will recur later. “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Milton, Book II, lines 432-433)

He hides from his pursuers in a dark room, in which he hears a whimpering voice. Assuming it’s somebody scared because of his entry, he says, “It’s all right,” then turns on the light and sees that the voice is coming from a parrot. This chiaroscuro shift from dark to light, or from concealment to revelation, paralleling the relationship between illusion and reality, is an important feature of the expressionist cinematography in this film, something aided well with the black-and-white photography (i.e., without distracting colour). This contrast of dark and light will feature again soon enough.

Martins’s pursuers chase him out of the building, and he goes down a hill of rubble and succeeds in hiding from them. The zither music is heavily chromatic in harmony, to add to the tension. In this hell of Vienna (whose shiny wet cobblestone streets parallel the water in the hellish sewers below–more on them later), one can’t hope just to escape up to heaven, but must confront its evil (i.e., descend into it…the sewers!) in order to defeat it.

Martins sees Calloway again, and indeed, he must confront that evil: Lime, his childhood friend, really has been involved in a despicable racket. An orderly named Harbin, who works for Lime, steals penicillin he finds (available only in military hospitals), then Lime sells it on the black market, diluting it so he and his men can maximize sales; in its diluted state, though, it cannot work as an effective treatment, so patients either get worse (gangrene, exacerbation of pregnant women’s problems when in childbirth, poor physical and mental health in children, etc.) or die.

Martins’s illusions about Lime have been utterly shattered: Calloway has provided proof that Lime, Martins’s good old friend, was…is…one of the vilest human beings out there. Martins gets drunk again, in a seedy area strewn with prostitutes, but his growing romantic interest in pretty Anna Schmidt means he buys her flowers and goes to see her.

In her apartment, they discuss what he’s learned about Lime. As they’re chatting, a camera moves in on some plants on her balcony; the shot then goes through the plants and out onto the streets below. A man dressed in black hides in the shadows of a doorway, where a cat goes over to his shoes: who is he?

Martins finishes his visit with Schmidt, realizing he hasn’t got a chance to replace Lime and be her man. His illusory hopes are dashed. (Speaking of illusions vs reality, she is an actress only doing comedies, yet she seems to have a permanent frown.) He leaves her apartment and goes out on the streets near where that man is hiding.

The cat’s meowing draws Martins’s attention, and he assumes the man is a spy tailing him. In his drunkenness, Martins shouts at him to come out and reveal himself. His shouting bothers a neighbour up above, who turns her apartment light on; the light shines out and is reflected in the man’s hiding place.

Martins sees guiltily smirking Lime.

Out of the darkness, and into the light; or, out of illusions and into reality. Lime faked his death!

Or, is this revelation just another illusion? Has Martins, in his inebriation, seen a ghost, or had a hallucination? A car shoots between the two men, and after it’s gone, Martins doesn’t see Lime in the shadows of that doorway anymore; that flash of light from the window has disappeared, too–we’ve gone from light back to dark, from reality back to illusion.

Martins hears Lime running down the street, though, and he chases him to a kiosk in the town square, where Lime unaccountably disappears. Martins summons Calloway, and they and Paine go to the kiosk, where Calloway puts two and two together: the kiosk has a secret doorway leading down to the sewers. That’s where Lime went!

The three men go down into the filthy, smelly place, an underground symbolic of hell, which is an appropriate place for our villain to be hiding. Lime’s racket, the selling of diluted (and therefore worthless) penicillin on the black market, is a lawlessness symbolic of the unregulated “free market.” Calloway’s police, combined with the American and French authorities of the Viennese zones, represent postwar, regulated capitalism. The Russians, of course, represent communism.

Because The Third Man is a post-WWII British film, it ideologically represents the centrist, liberal world view, as contrasted with the unregulated, right-wing libertarian capitalism of Lime’s racket on the one side, and the left-wing, Soviet position on the other. Both of these sides are portrayed as evil, due to the Cold War Western biases of the time, as well as the Keynesian, welfare capitalism of the Attlee era.

Accordingly, not only are Lime and his ilk the villains, but also the Russians, seeking to deport Schmidt for her forged immigration papers, are portrayed as politically repressive, when a closer examination of the political predicament of, for example, East Germany, would adequately explain why the communists were sometimes averse to their citizens defecting to the West, and averse to letting fascistic types enter the Soviet Bloc.

Calloway goes to the cemetery and has ‘Lime’s’ body dug up: sure enough, it isn’t Lime’s body, but that of Harbin. The darkness of the grave hid the illusion of Lime’s death, and Harbin’s body, brought up to the light, has revealed the truth.

Martins makes an arrangement to meet Lime at a Ferris wheel. There, Lime, still fittingly wearing a black coat and hat, discusses his racket with Martins, who is horrified at his friend’s unfeeling attitude towards his victims. In the Ferris wheel, they rise up to the top where they can talk in private.

That topmost point is Lime’s narcissistic heaven, where he can feel superior to, and look down at, all the people, those little “dots,” on the ground. He feels no compassion for his victims, and sees the erasure of many of those dots on the ground as expedient for the accumulation of profit, all tax-free.

In this way, it is so fitting that the post-war film takes place in Austria, of all places.

Lime feels little pity for Anna, either, knowing of her grief over his ‘death,’ and her prospects of being deported. Nonetheless, he keeps up the illusion of loving her by drawing a heart with Cupid’s arrow in it, rubbing his finger on the window of their carriage, and writing ‘Anna’ over it.

Just as it is heartbreaking for Martins to learn how low Lime has sunk (recall his refusal to accept the truth when he’s tried to hit Calloway near the beginning of the film), so does the defender of the “free market” experience cognitive dissonance when his illusions of it are shattered upon learning of its ill effects.

The narcissistic highs last only so long, and that topmost point of the Ferris wheel where Lime is standing must come back down. Still, he wants to fancy himself among the top men of the world; so when he and Martins return to the ground, he mentions–in Welles’s famous, improvised line–that the cruelties and violence of the Italy of the Borgias also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance, while the more humane and democratic Switzerland merely produced the cuckoo clock.

Apparently, psychopathy and narcissism–rather than talent–are what create great things.

Having seen for himself in a hospital the effects on children of Lime’s diluted penicillin, Martins decides to help Calloway catch his old friend. Schmidt, however, doesn’t like knowing Martins plans to betray her former lover. Her sympathy for Lime, as over Martins and those who deserve justice for Lime’s crimes, symbolically suggests how the conditions that have given rise to racketeers like Lime will resurface in the future (see the end of this analysis)…and recall that Anna Schmidt is the sympathetic love interest of the film.

A trap is set for Lime to meet Martins in a café, but when Lime arrives and is warned by Schmidt, he runs off to the sewers again. Calloway and the police are there, though.

Trapped in that filthy underground that reeks of excrement, Lime is in his narcissistic hell, the hell of his True Self, which he hates, as opposed to the illusory heaven of his False Self, which we saw at the top of the Ferris wheel. No longer do we see the smug, smirking villain; now he is visibly scared. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. All he can do is hide in the darkness from which he can’t escape, hoping the shadows will give the illusion of his absence.

But his pursuers know he’s there: no blackness can deny the reality of his being there. He shoots and kills Paine, then Calloway shoots and wounds him, then Martins shoots him dead with Paine’s pistol. It’s with great sadness that Martins must kill his friend, but no reforms can end the capitalist evil that Lime’s racket represents; that end can only be violently forced.

Now, Lime is gone, and a second funeral is held for him; but for all we know, his racket could be continuing, if not by Kurtz, Winkel, and Popescu (who have been arrested), then by someone else. The regulatory force of the British, American, and French authorities can try all they will, but the economic system they defend still creates the want that leads to some racketeers committing such crimes…

…just as the Keynesian/welfare capitalism of 1945-1973 protected the backbone of a system that later would morph into the Lime-like neoliberalism of today, which has produced its own lethal medical frauds.

Along with these problems is the alienation this system creates, an alienation symbolized in Schmidt’s snubbing of Martins at the end of the movie; indeed, he tries to keep alive his illusion that she’ll return his love, and her walking past him replaces illusion with reality once again, with that plaintive zither playing in the background. Greene wanted the happy ending given in his novella, in which Martins and Schmidt walk together; but Reed’s sad ending worked so much better that even Greene had to acknowledge it.

This sad ending implies what needs to be said about all the political circumstances surrounding the story: getting rid of one or two bad apples (be they Lime or, in our day, Trump) isn’t enough to mend our emotional and social wounds; the entire system that causes such division–not just the lines dividing Vienna (or Cold War-era Berlin, for that matter) into zones…and we see a lot of lines, a lot of people divided and isolated, boxed into geometrical shapes, in this film!…but also the lines dividing us into classes–is what must be abolished.

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