An Appreciation – The Third Man

The characters here are so well realized that we remember their different aspects and how they relate with each other long after finishing the film. Joseph Cotten (one of the most underrated actors ever) plays Holly with drunken naïveté and earnestness. He is a man caught in the middle of this plot; everything he does at first is reactionary, not knowing what is going on or what he needs to do. When the truth is revealed and he has to make the choice of how the story will end, does Holly truly learn the harshness of this place he has entered. Alida Valli plays Anna Schmidt, a stage actress and Harry’s girlfriend. What an interesting and complex person Anna is. She is one who knows exactly what the situation is and yet is still unwaveringly loyal to her man. She knows that he does bad things, and that people have suffered to his benefit, and yet she continues to love him and do whatever she needs to do to secure his safety. Anna is a Russian refugee hiding in the neutral sector with a forged passport provided by Harry, and this tells us that their dynamic goes beyond what we see in the film. Anna has seen a side of Harry that few others have; perhaps there is a good heart inside of him that he has only shown to her. She must have gone through some horrible experiences, and Harry was the only person there to help her, which would make her loyalty to him understandable. Holly and Anna’s partnership make for a fascinating element in the film, maybe even hinting at a possible romance. But Holly is torn between defending his friend and bringing a criminal to justice, and that ultimately seals the fate for all that are involved, including his relationship with Anna.

Orson Welles, thinking about it in hindsight, was probably the only actor that could have possibly played Harry Lime. No other actor I can think would have had the almost mythical stature that was needed to play this character. Welles was probably not held in such high regard at the time that the film was made, but Reed must have had an intuition about him, because he fought for Welles to play this central role. Remember, this was the man who made Citizen Kane (1941) at twenty-five. Although Harry is only seen for a short amount of time, and is only introduced in to the film at almost an hour into it, his character is its driving force. Harry’s influence is felt in every scene of the movie; the characters are constantly talking about him, the effects of his actions are shown throughout, and the choices that the characters make are based on how they will ultimately affect that fate of him. Welles plays Harry with much charm and charisma, but yet this character is a mean, dirty, opportunistic rat. Holly comes to learn that Harry has lived off the black market in Vienna, selling diluted penicillin and in turn leaving terrible affects on those who buy it from him—in particular many of the victims being young children. He is one of those characters you love to hate: he will smile openly toward your face, but is not hesitant about stabbing you in the back if he needs to.

Other films would be lucky enough to have one memorable scene. With this film, that would be nearly every one. The first is arguably the greatest introductory scene in the history of the movies. In a reveal that shows that Harry is, in fact, not dead but well alive, Holly finds his friend in the middle of a doorway following him. What a great set up: Holly drunk and staggering on the other side of the street; the cat meowing at the feet of an unidentified person; Holly calling him out; the light from the window shining directly on to Harry’s face; the camera pushing in to a smile as if Harry was caught in a game of hide and seek. The build up throughout the entire first hour of the film pays off in a moment of pure perfection, where we finally get to see the man everybody is talking about. The next great scene is the conversation Holly and Harry have on the gigantic Ferris wheel. Watch as the two circle each other, under a guise of hospitality but clearly cautious of the other’s intentions. Notice how the tension between them escalates dramatically when Harry talks about the “little dots” on the ground and how insignificant it would be if one of them stopped moving forever, and then slowly looks at Holly, Holly grasping to the cart anxiously. And of course, the cuckoo clock speech, apparently written by Welles himself, the most famous speech of the film, the one everyone refers to. It is a quick dialogue, and yet tells so much about Harry’s disturbed view of democracy and chaos.

Then there’s the famous chase scene in the sewers of Vienna. Tipped off to authorities by Holly, Harry scrambles around the maze of tunnels, with the police hot on his tail. There is no music at this point; the only things we hear are the running water, the sounds of footsteps, and the shouting of the characters, and yet it all adds to the scene being tense and suspenseful. Look at Welles’ face during this: sweaty and exasperated, desperate to find a way out. It is one of the great chase scenes ever filmed, ending with an incredible shot of his fingers seeping through the street grate, trying to clutch at freedom. This chase scene was shot on location in the sewers underneath Vienna, and Welles was reported to have complained about the stench of the enclosed area. Even today, tours are taken to retrace the path that the chase took, a tourist attraction in the underbelly of the city. And last, but not least, there is the final scene of the film, taking place at the graveyard. The story has been completed, those that needed to be brought to justice have been, but Holly feels there to be an unfinished resolution between him and Anna. Watch as he waits, leaning on the car, as Anna walks toward him, then near him, then past him, and on past the camera. Notice how Holly lights his cigarette, then tosses the match away. So quite, so subtle, and yet speaks volumes about the dynamic these two have, how they feel for each other now that things have transpired, and where they’ll possibly go from here.

Who exactly was The Third Man? Was it Harry Lime himself, helping drag an imposter’s body along the street with his friends? Does this sound reasonable? Given that Harry was trying to fake his own death, wouldn’t it have been wiser to remove himself from the scene as far as possible? Why even put yourself in a position where someone may possibly recognize you? Perhaps that’s a part of what makes this film so enjoyable to watch: not everything is laid out perfectly; there are quiet and minute details that are waiting to be discovered with multiple viewings, questions that linger on to be debated and thought about. One thing is for certain: this film is an achievement of great storytelling. It is one of great cinematic entertainments, a prime example of what it means to be as close to a “perfect” film as you can get.

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Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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