In post-World War II streets overflowing with inky shadows, greed, and hapless bureaucracy, pulp novelist Holly Martins (the brilliant Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna and promptly gets himself wrapped up in a plot that would rival any of his own novels when he finds that his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles at his most charismatic) has died. But, as with any great crime story, the onion is peeled back to reveal the layers of deceit and evil Lime inflicted on the people of Vienna, the woman he loved, and ultimately, on Holly.
It is the encapsulation of “the perfect film:” a brilliant craftsman – Carol Reed (THE FALLEN IDOLl, ODD MAN OUT) – in the director’s chair; a screenplay penned by a novelist of wonderful invention and wit – Graham Greene – that featured memorable characters embodied by Joseph Cotten (CITIZEN KANE, SHADOW OF A DOUBT), Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee (who would go on to be the first film “M” in the James Bond series, playing the character in 11 films, occasionally featuring direction by THIRD MAN assistant director Guy Hamilton) and Orson Welles as one of the great screen villains of all time, Harry Lime. Alfred Hitchcock once said:
For me, suspense doesn’t have any value unless it’s balanced by humor.
Humor abounds in THE THIRD MAN and is used precisely as humor should be used in any genre: to add a dose of natural human reality and deepen the audience’s emotional investment in the characters. Little touches here and there add humanity to the inhumane: Martins’ stumbling and mumbling lecture on faith to a Viennese book club; his derisiveness in calling Sgt. Calloway “Callahan,” (“Calloway. I’m English, not Irish”); Lime’s desire for more antacid tablets; the famous cuckoo clock speech:
Orson Welles’ Harry Lime is one of the great screen villains: utterly charming, fully convinced of the righteousness of his non-convictions. He is mentioned throughout in passing in his death then seen in shadow, alive and well – his death faked to get him out of trouble. But, as with all the best-laid plans of mice and men, Lime’s plan goes astray by his discounting of the one x-factor in his life: the conscience and broken heart of his childhood friend. In 1951, two years after the release of THE THIRD MAN, Orson Welles returned as Harry Lime in a radio series, The Adventures of Harry Lime (THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME in the US), a prequel, telling of Lime’s adventures prior to the events of the film. The radio show was a marked tonal shift from the darkness of the film, focusing on the charming con-artist aspect of Lime as opposed to the wanton villainy and evil of his scheme in the film. It was a radio show narrated by a dead man to the tune of Anton Karas’ brilliant score to THE THIRD MAN:
That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in a sewer beneath Vienna, as those of you know who saw the movie The Third Man. Yes, that was the end of Harry Lime … but it was not the beginning. Harry Lime had many lives … and I can recount all of them. How do I know? Very simple. Because my name is Harry Lime.
Yes, THE THIRD MAN went transmedia – additive transmedia, fortunately, not crap transmedia – in 1951. THE THIRD MAN is everything I love about film, the perfect marriage of talents, of storytelling, both written and visual. It is its own language, a language of zither music and friendships torn asunder, of faith and love gone wrong. It is a world constructed from the debris of a World War, one that I revisit again and again, each time finding something new and wonderful in its inky streets of greed peeled back and revealed, layer by layer.