© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Set in occupied Vienna just after the end of World War II, The Third Man is an intensely atmospheric film that effectively uses its setting to enhance the air of evil and corruption that pervades the entire piece, very much in the mode of the American noir films that it so closely resembles. The war-torn Vienna of the film is in many ways the central character. Shot mostly at night and largely in ruins, the former imperial capital of Austria-Hungary is, in fact, depicted as a broken shadow of its former splendid self, and in more ways than one. Not only has it been extensively damaged by the war in a material sense, but it is also steeped in moral decay, clearly a city in spiritual as well as physical ruin, a kind of specter of the feudal past struggling to cope with the capitalist present. In particular, it is a sort of confused and contested space, a long-established city that has suddenly become a lawless frontier town, with various forces vying to best take advantage of the opportunities offered by this situation. Placing the film within the context of the contemporaneous fiction of screenwriter Graham Greene, Mitchell Brown the film enacts Greene’s vision of

“international law, humanitarianism, and justice as being inevitably corrupted by the political realities of interstate spaces, which is to say zones that lie between states and therefore fall outside clear jurisdiction and governance. Greene’s postwar internationalism, as represented by crime-ridden Vienna in The Third Man, dramatizes the parallel status shared by the refugee and the rogue: to be a truly international subject is to be at once liable to encroach upon the rights of others as well as to have one’s own rights encroached upon” (197).

In this film, postwar Vienna is a city of mysteries and shadows.

Capitalism is, in many ways, at the core of the film. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to a Vienna in which the supply of almost all commodities relies on black market distribution and in which almost all of the citizens participate in the black market. An early shot of a floating corpse, however, reminds us of the potential fate of those who dabble in this market and helps to set the tone for the entire film. The actual plot of the film then begins as American novelist Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp Westerns, comes to Vienna to assume a job offered him there doing publicity work for a “medical charity” run by his old friend, the American Harry Lime (Orson Welles). On his arrival, however, Martins is told that Lime has just been killed in a street accident. When Martins subsequently attends the burial, he meets the British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who informs him that Lime had been the mastermind behind the blackest of black market schemes. Lime and his ring, Calloway claims, were stealing penicillin from local hospitals, then diluting it and selling it at huge profits on the black market. But the diluted drug was ineffective, resulting in horrible suffering and gruesome deaths for those who were treated with it.

Martins, a sort of American naif abroad, is at first incredulous and decides to seek evidence of Lime’s innocence so that he can exonerate his friend. In the process, he meets (and eventually falls in love with) Lime’s former girlfriend, the beautiful Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). He also meets a weirdly sinister cast of Lime’s former associates in Vienna, including Baron Kurtz (wonderfully played by Ernst Deutsch as a sort of degenerate vampire and figure of the decline of the European aristocracy), Dr. Winkel (played by Erich Ponto in a clearly Naziesque mode), and the sleazy Romanian Popescu (Siegfried Breuer). The more evidence Martins collects (especially from the porter of the building in which Lime had lived), the more suspicious appear the circumstances surrounding Lime’s death. Then the porter is killed, and Martins becomes convinced that Lime was murdered, perhaps by the same shadowy forces that did away with the porter. In the meantime, however, Calloway has convinced him that Lime really was trafficking in tainted penicillin, so he concludes that the murder represented a kind of justice.[1]

Unable to get Anna (who is still mourning Harry’s death) to respond to his romantic advances, Martins decides to leave Vienna. Then comes the film’s most memorable moment, as Martins spots a figure apparently watching him from a darkened doorway. Martins approaches the doorway, complaining loudly about being under constant surveillance, causing a neighbor to turn on a light, which falls perfectly on the cherubic-sinister face of Welles/Lime, illuminated as pure white against the black background of the doorway. But Lime runs away and seems to vanish into nowhere, leaving the befuddled Martins alone in the street. Martins reports the sighting to Calloway, who exhumes Lime’s coffin, finding in it the body of a local hospital orderly who had been involved in Lime’s scheme. Martins manages to meet with Lime, who informs him that he is hiding out in the Soviet sector of the city, protected by the Russians in return for his cooperation.

The face of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) emerges from the shadows.

After this meeting, Martins decides not to help the British police capture Lime. However, the Russians have by now discovered (apparently from Lime) that Anna is not Austrian, but Czech, and they plan (for reasons unspecified in the film, which seems to assume that Russians simply do such things as a matter of course) to force her to return to Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. That, presumably, would be a fate worse than death, so Martins finally agrees to work with Calloway in return for the latter’s promise to help Anna escape from the Russians. Martins arranges a meeting with Lime, and Calloway stakes out the meeting, leading to the film’s memorable chase sequence through the sewers beneath the city (which oddly seem better lighted and certainly in better repair than the streets and buildings above), resulting finally in Lime’s shooting death at the hands of Martins. The film then repeats Lime’s burial, after which Calloway is to take Martins to the airport to return to America. Instead, however, Martins stays behind to try to help Anna, leaving both their futures uncertain as they stand together against the receding background of a lane lined by severely trimmed, leafless trees.

The Third Man is certainly a British film, made by a British company with a British director and screenwriter—the accomplished novelist Graham Greene.[2] Moreover, it is decidedly British in its outlook, presenting the British Calloway as a paragon of virtue and capability, while Americans are either bumbling innocents or vicious capitalists, Austrians are decadent blood-suckers, and Russians are so obviously horrid that their evils need not be specified. On the other hand, The Third Man is in many ways a quintessential example of the film noir, that decidedly American genre, with its detective-story plot amid an air of decadence and evil, weird shadows cast by expressionist lighting, and out-of-kilter camera angles. The film does, however, go beyond the typical film noir in its modernist techniques, especially in its haunting sound track of mostly cheerful zither music, completely out of whack with the look and content of the film. This disjunction creates a sort of Brechtian alienation effect that greatly enhances the film’s pervasive (and bizarre) air of a world out of joint. Indeed, The Third Man is ultimately an impressive fusion of the popular film noir thriller and the high art film. As Naremore puts it, The Third Man “is one of the best and most representative films of a period when a certain kind of high art had fully entered public consciousness and when European sobriety and American entertainment sometimes worked in tandem” (80).

A striking composition within the Vienna sewers.

Still, the film has strong connections with American culture. For one thing, Lime’s evil black market scheme can obviously be taken as a comment on the especially predatory nature of American capitalism (which turns out in this film to have roughly the same moral content, or lack thereof, as Russian communism, as opposed to the genuine morality of British culture). Similarly, the film’s depiction of the pulp novels produced by Martins can be taken as a comment on the debased nature of American culture, a comment enhanced when Martins attempts to give a lecture before a British-run cultural group in Vienna, where he demonstrates that he is virtually illiterate and knows essentially nothing about literature. Finally, Welles’s role in the project (and he dominates the film, despite not appearing until it is two-thirds over) can be taken as a signal of his endorsement of the film’s criticisms of American culture. After all, it is worth recalling that Welles’s participation in The Third Man marked the beginning of a self-imposed exile of several years, during which Welles remained in Europe to escape not only the Hollywood studio system, but the congressional anti-communist witch-hunts of the time.


[1] See Naremore for a suggestion that Martins’ search for (and ultimate disillusionment with) Lime echoes Marlow’s quest to find Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (77).

[2] Greene’s later novel The Quiet American (1955) is something of a political cousin to The Third Man in the way it suggests that the United States often flexed its newfound military and political muscle around the world after World War II without really understanding the local situations in which it became involved. In particular, The Quiet Man suggests that it should have been obvious from the beginning that the American intervention in Vietnam would prove catastrophic.