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The Third Man  

It`s the theme music which proclaims the attitude of this film. A zither score, which to me sounds vaguely Western or Mexican, inhabits the soundtrack like a natural, casual presence. It is wonderful just to listen to, but it also creates a feeling of normality in what is generically a outrageous crime thriller. The events which occur in Carol Reed`s 1949 film The Third Man are, therefore, not done by demonic creatures set apart from the ordinary folk, but by those with entirely human motivations. It may be criminal activity, but it`s everyday human activity all the same.


Holly, played by Joseph Cotten, is an American writer of pulp Westerns and mysteries, who travels to war-torn Vienna to look up an old friend, Harry Lime. When he arrives at the apartment, however, he is shocked to learn from Lime`s German-speaking landlord that Lime was killed accidentally by his own car in front of the apartment. The landlord knows because after hearing the accident, he saw through the window three men dragging his body across the street. Holly is obviously very interested in why such a thing would happen, and so searches around for anyone who may give him some answers. Along the way he meets some interesting individuals, including his friend and his personal physician, who right from the beginning seem like people with something to hide. A first time viewer would naturally suspect perhaps Lime had been murdered, and these "friends" had something to do with it. Holly also meets Lime`s girlfriend, an opera singer. Holly takes a natural fancy to this woman and wants her to be in on the search for the truth. Along the way, rumours are spoken of on how Lime was a somewhat shady character. Holly naturally cannot believe this, for this is his friend they`re talking about. There are also many inconsistencies in the stories of the different people involved. Lime`s friends both say they were the only people dragging Lime`s body. But the landlord, as mentioned before, said there were three, so who could the third man be? Such a disagreement isn`t just a small problem, but a deadly one.

The revelation of who is "the third man" develops into what is considered one of the most famous film entrances in history. While he walks down the night streets looking for anyone who can explain to him what is going on, Holly notices the shoes of a man behind the shadows, rubbed on by a stray cat, and so he calls this stranger on it. Holly has a feeling this is a deliberately mysterious individual who may have some answers. Holly`s calls disturb a neighbour enough to open the bedroom window. And as she does so, the light from the room illuminates the stranger, who is none other than...... Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. Lime realizes he`s just been found out, and gives his old friend an odd smirk, as if to say he`s cheated death, perhaps. Or maybe as if he is a ghost, for as soon as Holly approaches him, the window closes, the light is gone, and Lime has vanished. In actuality, he hides in the city sewers, allowing himself to yet again avoid the clutches of the police, who later tell Holly exactly what sort of character Lime really was. Lime sold defective penicillin in the underground economy. The medicine harmed a lot of people, but Lime was able to make a killing from it.

Welles is also a contributor to an equally fascinating monologue. Legend has it that Welles improvised this speech; certainly he is able to make it his very own. Lime and Holly meet at a Ferris wheel the next day, after Holly has convinced Lime`s friends to let him out of hiding, so he can explain to his best friend why he would choose such a contemptible criminal activity. Lime rationalizes this most convincingly when, as they reach higher on the Ferris wheel, he points to the people below. From such a height, these people are nothing more than insignificant dots. Welles also says a world without such ambiguities of good and evil can only produce a culture of little significance: "Switzerland had three centuries of brotherly love, and what did they come up with? The cuckoo clock." Harry Lime figures opportunity and fame can only come about in an illicit society, so naturally for him to get ahead he must adapt a criminal mind. If anyone knows they can get away with something, the odds increase that this person will actually commit that certain something.

Holly is portrayed as basically naive; one who until this experience could only see the world in black and white, where your friends were trustworthy, and the bad guys were easy to spot. The most obvious symbolism for this personality trait is in his profession itself. He writes potboilers designed with the lowest common denominator in mind, and is at a loss for words when he inadvertently finds himself guest speaker for a literary function, and hasn`t the foggiest who James Joyce is or what the fashionable literary trends are about. Just as he doesn`t understand the complex variety of the literary world, he doesn`t recognize the serious complications of the human condition. This naivete also reveals a few things in his own character. He says to Lime`s girlfriend that Lime made everything fun, etc. which seems to mean Holly never really had a chance to truly know Harry at all. Harry was only useful to Holly as an enjoyable character, but if they were true friends,wouldn`t Holly already have an idea of what potentially could come about in Harry`s life?

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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