Resurrecting the Third Man
Forget the Dark Side. Darth Sidious? No more convincing than Bela Lugosi flitting about an Abbott and Costello travesty. For the real thing, you’ll have to visit your local revival house when The Third Man shows up. Although filmed in black and white without special effects, its evocation of evil is infinitely more unsettling than anything Industrial Light and Magic has ever served up.
The Third Man turns 50 this year, and to celebrate the occasion, Rialto Pictures has restored and re-released director Carol Reed’s brilliant adaptation of Graham Greene’s narrative of foreign intrigue. It’s being distributed nationwide throughout the summer.
Seeing the film in 35 mm projected on a full-size screen reveals its intentions with far greater clarity than video possibly could. To interpret Greene’s vision of a world without sure moral footing, Reed employed a few simple strategies that lose most of their impact on the small screen. He shot many of his scenes on an angle so that tables, chairs, buildings, and actors always seem on the verge of tumbling from the frame. He chose to film the narrative’s death dance of innocence and duplicity in high-contrast black and white so that characters are nearly invisible one moment and blindingly luminous the next as they slip in and out of shadows, an effect that would be practically impossible to recreate in today’s Technicolor world. Then there is the restored soundtrack. Hearing it, you can appreciate why The Third Man theme became a number-one seller when it was released as a record in 1949. Anton Karas’s sinuous and insinuating zither perfectly complements the film’s intrigue.
The story line is standard-issue Greene, which is a very high standard indeed. It’s a tale of benighted innocence rescued by a timely dose of withering disillusionment. Holly Martins is the innocent, an American lost in an all-too-experienced post-World War II Europe. He’s played with intrepid dimness by Joseph Cotten, whose plodding, phlegmatic manner perfectly suits the role. Martins, a writer of pulp Western novelettes, comes to Vienna to see his old chum, Harry Lime, a boyishly mischievous Orson Welles, whose penchant for scene-stealing is, for once, entirely appropriate. As Lime, Welles is meant to be both a practiced charmer and an unconscionable betrayer.
When Martins arrives in Vienna, an occupied and thoroughly demoralized city policed by the four Allied powers, he discovers that his friend has died in questionable circumstances. When he decides to investigate, he’s thwarted at every turn by Major Calloway, head of the British security forces. Trevor Howard plays Calloway as a decent man soured by the corruption he’s forced to deal with. He informs Martins that Lime was “the worst racketeer to make a dirty living in this city.” Lime’s racket was unusually vile. Stealing penicillin from the Allies’ military hospitals, he diluted it and then sold it to an unsuspecting Austrian public, knowing full well he was rendering the drug harmful and often lethal, especially when used on children.
Martins doesn’t believe Calloway’s charge. As a hack writer in the Zane Grey mode, he’s convinced he can distinguish the good guys from the bad at a glance, and he’s thoroughly convinced Lime is a white hatter. He angrily declares his intention to “get to the bottom of this.” Exasperated by such Yankee innocence, the world-weary major retorts, “Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”
Calloway tosses off the remark merely to put a fool in his place, but his words prescribe the medicine Martins needs to cure his self-infected, self-important innocence. In Greene’s world, moral responsibility begins with the recognition of our common mortality, an awareness that has the power to dissolve the presumed differences to which we obstinately cling. It’s difficult to nurture self-aggrandizing fantasies by the graveside.
Reed visualizes this theme with two images: a cemetery path and a Ferris wheel. He begins and ends the film at gravesites. This gives him the opportunity to shoot a leaf-littered, tree-lined cemetery path straight down its center, forcing us to contemplate the convergence of its parallel lines as they recede to their vanishing point. It’s the very image of mortality, right down to the autumn leaves which Reed had his crew throw into the scene from ladders placed just outside camera range. The path announces our destiny. We’re all walking along it, each step irreversibly shaping our identity. We take our decisions—good, bad, and indifferent—inexorably to the grave.
Against this somber image stands Lime’s frivolous emblem, the amusement park Ferris wheel on which he takes Martins for a ride—in more ways than one. Lime, of course, is very much alive, having faked his death by using the corpse of a former accomplice. He is, ironically, the “third man” Martins has been searching for, the man who helped carry the dead body from the accident site and who, Martins had thought, might be able to solve what seemed an impenetrable mystery. Indeed, Lime does just that, only to produce a more profound one: the mystery of evil.
Like Martins, Lime is childish, but his childishness doesn’t express itself in naive heroism. Instead, he operates on one principle only: heedless self-interest. The Ferris wheel expresses him perfectly. Unlike the cemetery path, it has no beginning or end. For Lime, life is a circular series of amusements, swirling about him as he stands, a bemused ringmaster, at its center. From this position, he coolly gauges the value of other people by one criterion only: the degree to which they either help or hinder his comfort. Although charming, he is a monster who attracts people and then uses them remorselessly to advance his own interests. When the Brits seem to be closing in on him, he has no compunction about selling out his Czechoslovakian mistress to the Russians in order to save himself. As Martins puts it in Greene’s text, “evil was like Peter Pan—it carried with it the horrifying and horrible gift of eternal youth,” a perspective from which other people are not quite real; they’re merely conveniences or obstacles. That’s why Lime can make Martins an extraordinary offer on the Ferris wheel. At the ride’s apex, they stand in a swinging cabin, the city-
scape seesawing crazily in the background. Disgusted by his friend’s evident shamelessness, Martins asks him, “Have you ever seen one of your victims?” As an answer, Harry beckons Holly to the cabin window and bids him to look on the people in the amusement park below, now mere specks:
Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?
After all, he cheerily rationalizes, he’s doing no more than governments do. “They talk about the people and the proletariat. I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans and so have I.” One could hardly imagine a more chilling parody of Christ’s temptation in the desert. Lime makes his argument with such cunning confidence in its irresistibility that he backhandedly indicts our entire century, if not all human history. How many of us have steadfastly rejected his satanic temptation? How often have our leaders chosen to sacrifice the dots on the ground in the cause of some higher political goal—the classless state, say, or national identity—when what they were really after was the cheapest of bribes, the so-called power and glory of this world? How many dots have we sacrificed in Serbia?
Reed stingingly delivers one of Greene’s central messages: No one has clean hands, least of all those who hold official authority. It turns out that Harry’s penicillin racket was made possible by the Allies’ occupation forces. They decided to restrict the antibiotic to their military hospitals, keeping it from the Austrians. Reed widens the indictment with a sort of macabre grace note supplied by the running gag of Holly mistaking Calloway’s name time and again: He keeps calling him Callaghan until the exasperated major finally points out, “I’m British, not Irish.” Yes, so you are, one thinks. Other than that, you’re as fine a chap as the rest of us good souls. It’s just that we’re all a bit compromised by those nagging entanglements we have with our respective tribalisms and self-interests.
Although leavened by theological hope, Greene’s story is, in his narrator’s words, “grim and sad and unrelieved.” Reed, however, had the visual wit to turn it into popular entertainment. He brightened Greene’s grayness without sacrificing any of his provocative darkness. What seems bleak on the page fairly blazes on the screen, nowhere more so than when Welles makes his justly famous entrance as Harry Lime, a name with a distinctively demonic aura. “Old Harry” is British slang for Satan, and Lime, as Harry’s dialogue reminds us, suggests limelight and Lucifer’s pre-fallen splendor. After hearing the other characters discuss this scoundrel obsessively for 59 minutes, we become—at least on first viewing—accustomed to thinking of him as an absence whose presence is felt everywhere, almost a Thomistic version of evil. Then Lime suddenly appears, and the screen flares with an energy that we could hardly have anticipated. Old Harry will only be on screen for 11 minutes, but what an 11 minutes!
Lurking in the shadows of a doorway, Lime is revealed to us when a window is opened above, illuminating him. As the camera trucks slowly forward, it reveals Welles for the first time. In extreme close-up, his face seems the radiant, incandescent source of all the world’s light as he smiles at us with a conspirator’s knowing welcome. You’ve been looking for me, his expression mockingly says. Well, how do like what you see? With an arch smile on his overfed but still handsomely rakish visage, Welles is physically the incarnation of debonair sleaze. The masterfully contrived scene defines Lime instantly. He is a charming, fallen angel of light emerging from his chosen darkness, as unbowed as he is unrepentant. We instantly understand why others are drawn to him. He may be morally contemptible, but he is also a vital, quicksilver Lucifer, who speaks seductively to the infantile wantonness in us all.
Typical of Greene’s vision, Lime becomes both satan and savior to the innocent Martins, at once a source of temptation and an occasion to redeem himself. In Greene’s excessively Augustinian universe, no one is saved without first taking the sacrament of sin. Martins does this by awakening to his complicity with the engaging Harry. It’s dupes like himself who license such predators.
Thus Lime, who had been the elusive third man at his fake accident, becomes unintentionally quite a different third man, the one who shows up in Chapter 24 of Saint Luke’s gospel. In this passage, two disconsolate disciples are walking to Emmaus after Christ’s Crucifixion. As they proceed, they suddenly notice there is a third man walking with them. Only when they pause to break bread together are their eyes opened. The third man is Jesus.
This is the film’s faith: that despite our ineradicable selfishness, we nevertheless serve as instruments of one another’s salvation. Greene, perhaps, but not grim.
This article first appeared in the August 1999 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.