Released in the United Kingdom on September 1st 1949, The Third Man was directed by Carol Reed and starred Hollywood legends Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.
Novelist Graham Greene penned the screenplay, based on a novella he had written as a guidebook for the film.
Central to the film’s success was Reed’s decision to shoot on-location in Vienna, despite the obvious risks posed by cold war tension in the region.
Welles was later credited with adding bits of dialogue, most famously the cuckoo-clock monologue following the ferris wheel scene.
The Third Man’s iconic status is also rooted in the authenticity of its soundtrack. The score was composed by Austrian-born composer Hubert Clifford. The theme music, a zither track by local Viennese musician Anton Karas, has become synonymous with the film.
Produced by London Films and distributed by Selznick Releasing, The Third Man won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival as well as an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
In 1999, the British Film Institute named The Third Man the #1 British film of all-time.
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The Third Man: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
Middling novelist Rollo Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in partitioned post-war Vienna with plans to accept a nebulous job offer from his boyhood friend, Harry Lime. Within hours of his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime (Orson Welles) has been killed, the victim of a car crash a few days earlier.
At Lime’s funeral Martins encounters Colonel Calloway, a British officer in the allied forces charged with policing the city’s thriving black market. Calloway informs Martins that Lime was actually a notorious racketeer, a central figure in the illegal sale of penicillin, and indirectly responsible for countless deaths.
Dubious and offended, Martins sets out to clear his old friend’s name, soon discovering a dangerous underworld that may not let him leave.
The Third Man: Critical Analysis
The Third Man contains perhaps the most iconic scene in Film Noir: The Sewer Scene.
Indelible in both film and text, the sewer is a metaphor for many of the post-war themes depicted in the story.
The filthy business of the criminal underworld is very aptly represented by the literally filthy underworld of the Viennese sewer system.
The interconnecting tunnels represent the labyrinthine complexity of the post-war European order, its sloppy work-arounds, the murky twists and turns of graft and red tape required to run a business, the slippery nature of the smugglers and businessmen who sought to exploit the shoddy system of shared government oversight.
Most importantly, the sewer scene symbolizes the descent into the subconscious mind.
What lies beneath our ideas of masculinity and male friendship? What do men owe each other? What lines will men cross in the name of loyalty?
In the face of life and death, do you choose your friends, or what you know deep down is right?
The Third Man: Read the Book or Watch the Movie?
The Third Man was never intended to be a stand alone novel, nor is it a novelization of the classic film. Written before production began, it was intended as a guide for Greene (who wrote the screenplay) and legendary director Carol Reed, who brought his own specific vision to the project.
You may be asking, “Isn’t the book always better than the movie?”
In most cases, the answer is yes.
In this case, the answer is no.
It’s only by consuming BOTH renditions that you discover the true intricacies of the story.
Consider Greene’s words on the subject:
“To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form.”
The text employs Colonel Calloway as its first person narrator, plausible in the sense that he’s responsible for filing police reports, convenient in the sense that said police reports are rarely recounted in such a pleasingly dramatic fashion.
The screen version (apart from a brief voice-over at the outset) dispenses with Calloway’s narration, in favour of Martins’ third person limited point of view. The lack of interiority in the film version carries a distinct benefit: Martins comes off more like a curious detective and less like a crusading fraternity brother.
The most important difference between the novel and the film pertains to the story’s oddly named protagonist. In the novel, his name is Rollo Martins, a British citizen. In the film, he’s called Holley Martins. And he’s American.
The novel goes to great lengths to explain that Rollo Martins has somewhat of a split personality: there’s “Rollo” and then there’s “Martins”. “Rollo” is a sentimental idealist who thinks too much of himself. “Martins” is a cynical womanizer who drinks too much and picks fights with strangers.
The novel plays around with these personas, perhaps to achieve a degree of mirroring with its infamous antagonist, Harry Lime.
But the film omits this duality.
Holley Martins is 100% the “Martins” from the novel, while “Rollo” never makes an appearance.
Tough, cynical, stubborn and drunk, Holley is drawn into the conspiracy through curiosity, coincidence and self-serving opportunism.
Thus the “Holley” of the film is more in line with anti-heroes from novels like The Stranger (Albert Camus)(1942) and Double Indemnity (James M. Cain)(1943).
Reading and watching the The Third Man is reminiscent of a similar experience when it comes to Drive, the 2005 novel by James Sallis, later adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Like Carol Reed in 1949, Amini and Refn didn’t alter the source material as much as they re-arranged it. They identified the truly Noir components and doubled down, while at the same time, omitting elements that detracted from the desired aesthetic.
Most importantly, like Reed, they also changed the ending. The closing scene in the film version of The Third Man is not present in the novel, nor is the brilliant conclusion of Drive (2011).
In the film’s closing scenes, Driver (the protagonist) is faced with a dilemma. After killing a mobster in self-defense, he knows his life will always be in danger. If Driver remains in Los Angeles, Irene and Julio will never be safe. His choice is to stick around and make a precarious life with Irene, or take the money the run.
As members of the audience, we’re relieved to see that Driver hasn’t died from his injuries. We watch him driving in his car. We assume he’s heading home to see Irene. But just before the credits roll, we see her enter his apartment and find the bag of money on the bed. We cut back to the highway, watching Driver roll away.
In the The Third Man, the film’s final scene opens on a tree lined road. Although Holley has helped the authorities capture Harry Lime, we still expect to see him end up with the girl. After all, he did the right thing—didn’t he?
We see Holley and Anna walk toward each other from opposing sides of the screen. We expect a reunion, perhaps a romantic kiss. We expect a new relationship will begin or be implied.
But Anna can barely stand to look at him. In a choice between Lime and Martins, she’d choose a scoundrel over a traitor. At least the scoundrel was loyal. Now that Harry Lime is dead, Anna Schmidt would rather be alone.
The results of these ambiguous lose/lose endings are evident: both Drive and The Third Man are now considered genre film classics, essential members of the canon. Without reading the novels that inspired them, your Film Noir education remains unambiguously incomplete.
The Third Man has been published in several different formats, editions and price points. You can rent the film on most streaming services, or pick up the excellent Criterion Collection Blu-Ray DVD. Any used bookstore on earth will have the paperback in stock. For a new edition of the novel, check out Penguin Classics.
Not unlike Night and The City (1950), there were two renditions of the film. The version shown in American cinemas opened with a monologue by actor Joseph Cotten, while the British cut was narrated by Director Carol Reed.
Reed’s voice-over described postwar Vienna from a criminal’s point of view, a depiction that studio executives felt was too gritty for mainstream American audiences.
Antagonist Harry Lime has become a prototype in Noir: the principled criminal, more than willing to break the law, yet governed by his own strict moral code. In Lime, we have a model for the characters that would later come to populate the films of Roman Polanski, Paul Schrader, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann.
If you enjoyed this “Book vs. Movie” style post, be sure to check out our article on Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952).