Marshall Tankersley, Student Editor
How one grows is as important to a life as actions. A man can do one thing in his life, but how he reacts to it and how he progresses beyond it truly defines him, whether for good or for ill. The Third Man is a story about such progress, as it examines two men in their quest to grow (or not grow), cast into relief in the midst of a city itself trying to grow and recover from the tragedy of war.
The film tracks an American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) who travels to the war-ravaged city of Vienna to meet with an old friend, Harry Lime (played by the acclaimed actor Orson Welles). The main character, Martins, discovers that Lime has been killed in a car accident, but that no one wants to investigate the death further and that witnesses are reticent to come forward. In trying to find out the truth, Martins meets Lime’s old girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), and falls for her; Martins then comes into conflict and later works with the hard-nosed British officer Major Calloway (played by Trevor Howard).
Calloway is in charge of an investigation, and he tells Martins that Lime was a black market dealer in penicillin, a rare commodity in post-war Vienna. In stealing penicillin to resell, Lime stole it from military hospitals that needed it, which cost the lives of the most vulnerable including mothers after childbirth and children themselves.
When Martins discovers that Lime is very much alive and has faked his death, Lime shows no remorse for what he’s done. When the two are on the top of the Ferris wheel at the Vienna fairgrounds, Lime even indicates that he might be contemplating throwing Martins off to his death. Martins tries to shame Lime into having some regrets:
Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.
Lime even admits that he put Anna in jeopardy in order to secure safety in the Soviet section of Vienna. After Martins discovers that Lime is not only a thief and villain but that he has also murdered in order to fake his own death, chaos ensues and Martins is forced to choose between his old world and what he knows is right.
The main theme of the movie is growth, as expressed through situations of disjoint. Holly Martins, and by virtue the audience, is dealing with a transition between worlds. The old world has passed away in the fires of war, and the new one opens up in dangerous yet exciting ways. Martins comes to Vienna, a city still reeling from the Second World War, to find a childhood friend, a friend he has many fond memories of. The soundtrack highlights this, giving a jaunty travel-movie style sound to the film even in scenes such as Lime’s faked funeral.
Martins leaves Vienna having quite literally put those memories to death. In his final confrontation with the fleeing Lime, who has just murdered a British serviceman, Martins shoots and kills his old friend. In the end Martins refuses to allow himself to be ruled by the past, especially not when doing so would adversely affect the future.
Harry Lime, on the other hand, acts as a counterpoint to Martins’s push for the future. Throughout the film, Lime remains steadfastly stuck in the past so much so that he remains childish, jocular, and dismissive of the consequences of his actions. What he says to Martins as he leaves the Ferris wheel conveys all of these characteristics:
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.
Lime remains boyish and dismissive until he is finally betrayed and the police close in on him. Trapped in the sewers with no way out, Lime ‘grows up’ by pulling a gun and murdering in a vain attempt to escape. Interestingly, the film would seem to say that the characters here are not changing, just learning more about themselves and each other, things that they hadn’t realized before or had covered over. “A person doesn’t change just because you find out more,” Anna says.
The symbolism of disjoint extends beyond words and actions to how the film is itself portrayed. As mentioned before, the happier-sounding soundtrack contrasts very clearly with the darker and deeper tones of the movie itself. It’s worth noting that the jaunty music all but disappears during the final chase scene, symbolizing the reality and depth of the situation the men find themselves in. The camera angles are also used effectively throughout the movie to create a sense of unease, as there are several shots taken from a sharp angle and not from the natural, even style normally used by filmmakers. The Third Man can be a genuinely unsettling and uncomfortable film to watch, making even scenes that would otherwise seem innocuous take on an altogether more sinister air.
In the end, Martins realizes that he has to face the ‘brave new world’ he now lives in, and make the tough choices to ensure its safety. He ends the story alone, losing even the woman he had come to develop feelings for because of his actions. And yet, Martins seems to know he did the right thing and could have done nothing else.
As a writer, as a man, and as a human being, Martins has grown. He has refused the enticing lie of nostalgia and instead determined to fight for his future. He will be no Harry Lime.