The Third Man

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

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 brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

The Third Man is a 1949 British Film Noir set in post-war Vienna, starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Vali and Orson Welles.

Down-on-his-luck American writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives in postwar Vienna to meet with an old friend, Harry Lime (Welles), who has offered him a job. Unfortunately, the day Martins arrives, he finds out that Lime is dead.

Martins becomes entangled in a web of stories that make his pulp Westerns seem quaint in comparison. Investigating the death of his friend in order to clear his name from the selling of stolen and diluted penicillin he meets Lime's former love interest, a seemingly crooked cop, and a porter who has seen far too much. Martin's quest to clear the name of his friend drags him into dangerous territory and challenges his preconceived notions of good and evil.

The story takes many of the tropes commonly associated with Film Noir and plays with them. The film is also notorious for Orson Welles stealing the show in the final act, and for its hypnotic music score by zitherist Anton Karas (whose title theme became a huge hit).

Tropes used in The Third Man include:

Martins: (...) Is it possible... that his death was not just an accident,... Dr. Winkle?
Dr. Winkel: ...*Beat*... Ving-kell. I cannot judge it, I wasn't there.

  • Hannibal Lecture: Possibly the greatest in all of film history.
  • Happily Ever Before:
    • Inverted in an odd way- Graham Greene's novel, written at the same time as the screenplay, has a moderately happy ending
    • A double inversion, actually. Producer David O. Selznick, who was known for happy Hollywood-style endings, insisted upon the bleak Did Not Get the Girl finale, even though screenwriter Greene, whose writing style was known for being incredibly depressing, originally intended to have the movie end with Anna embracing Holly after the funeral.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: Baron Kurtz now works as a blackmarketeer in post-war Vienna.
  • Humiliation Conga: Happens to the hero. Did we mention this is a Film Noir?
  • Idiot Ball: Holly Martins never met an idiot ball he didn't like. Unfortunately, he's usually not the one who pays for it.
  • Insert Cameo
  • It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": Dr. Vinkle. Mind you, if someone kept calling you "Winkle" (like Holly does), you would get ticked off too.
  • Kubrick Stare: Used by Baron Kurtz (albeit in a non-threatening context), making this trope Older Than They Think.
  • Late to the Party
  • Manipulative Bastard: Lime constantly uses people (notably Anna and Martins) and will throw them away without a thought when they are no longer of use to him.
  • Mercy Kill: Lime wordlessly asks Martins to shoot him once it's clear there's no escape.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: Martins is believed to be a more famous author by the character Crabbin. This is more developed in the novel, in which the rather macho Martins writes under a pseudonym who shares a surname with a famous novelist known for a "feminine" writing style (according to Word of God, the famous novelist was a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the very gay E.M. Forster)
  • Most Writers Are Writers: And so is Martins.
  • My Name Is Not Durwood: Martins keeps addressing Calloway as "Callahan".

It's Calloway! I'm English, not Irish.

  • Not My Driver: Subverted. Holly thinks his cabby is abducting him, and is working for the conspiracy, but the guy's really just driving him to the lecture he was scheduled to do and doesn't speak English.
  • Not So Different: "If I offered you $20,000 for every one of those dots that stopped moving, would you really tell me to keep my money, or would you start calculating how many dots you could afford to spare?"
  • One-Scene Wonder: Orson Welles appears less than 10 minutes on screen; nonetheless, he is the most remembered part of it.
  • Opening Narration: Done in the original UK release by director Carol Reed, and in the US version by Joseph Cotten.
  • POV Sequel: The screenwriter (author Graham Greene) wrote a book that was published to coincide with the film release with the British officer's POV. There was also a radio serial with Lime's exploits entitled The Adventures of Harry Lime.
  • Putting on the Reich: Some of us may have noticed that the Vienna policemen's and soldiers' uniforms are original Third Reich Uniforms with merely the swastikas removed. But this is Truth in Television ; the film was made in '49, and the police and armies had not yet issued any new uniforms so early after the war. Austria simply couldn't afford it in such a rationed and provisional era (also not for the filming). These uniforms would remain until well into the 50s.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Lime dies, Sgt. Paine dies, Martins Did Not Get the Girl, and said girl will most probably be deported back to Czechoslovakia to face Soviet law. Furthermore, the children who suffer from Lime's diluted penicillin will not get saved by Lime getting neutralized either. But hey, at least future patients will be save from Lime's diluted medicines, and this counts as well!
  • Sissy Villain: Lime's associate Kurtz certainly has his share of signifiers.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very much on the cynical side.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Lime is on screen for very little time, but there would be no story without him.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Anton Karas's bouncing melodies, happy harmonies and general bright zither playing over the one of the bleakest, most cynical films ever made.
  • Spiritual Successor: Welles later adapted three scripts he wrote for The Adventures of Harry Lime into the movie Mr. Arkadin.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Holly Martins, which is part of the point of the movie.
  • Viewer Discretion Shot: We don't get to see the corpses of the porter or Harbin, or any of Harry Lime's victims in the children's hospital. Somehow, the shot of the stuffed animals and tiny bookshelf crammed in next to one of dozens of identical hospital beds - the only glimmer of the dying child's individuality, of their true being - is worse.
  • We Can Rule Together
  • What Is Evil?: The famous cuckoo clock speech.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Holly Martins. At first.
  • Wolverine Publicity: Orson Welles.
  • World Half Empty
    • Justified considering the place and the year.
    • Or arguably Earn Your Happy Ending because of the place and year.