“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.“
From the opening sequence of The Third Man, there is an uncanny sensation that something is not right. As a narrator casually opens up the tale, a shot pans across murky portside water, rank with flotsam and jetsam, and suddenly it becomes clear that there is a corpse floating amid the rubbish.
That uneasy feeling soon permeates the atmosphere, as the audience is presented again and again with imagery that is both haunting and unforgettable: the crumbling ruins of bombed-out buildings, shells of ornate architecture laying topsy-turvy in the rubble, plain mismatched furniture and coverless light-bulbs cluttering vaulting rooms of elaborate Italian design. The city is a showcase of post-war poverty struggling for survival amid the grim near-anarchy of crime and corruption, death and disillusionment. Shadows, fogs, and shafts of light obscure the viewer’s vision; cobblestones glitter like glass in the streetlamps and shadows of men loom deceptively as tall as buildings. Every shot, every line of shading and light, is just slightly off; the angles are just barely skewed, resulting in the distinct sensation that the whole dark and twisted world in which the characters are entangled is swiftly slipping off the screen. The queer zither soundtrack also strangely fits the setting: the local color and local intrigue seem equally tangled up in the music’s twanging, repetitious, changing chords.
This evocative setting is the perfect backdrop for director Carol Reed’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s tale, set in the post-WWII black market days of Vienna, about a bumbling, naïve American writer named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is offered a job in Vienna by an old school friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but arrives barely in time to be told that, at that very moment, the last shovelfuls of six feet of earth are being laid over his pal Lime.
At the funeral, Holly falls in with British inspector Calloway (a resigned, grim Trevor Howard) who, after buying Holly one too many drinks, informs him candidly that the police have known for some time that Lime was a vicious racketeer but were never able to convict him. Reeling and aimless after the sudden shock of death and accusation, Holly foolishly commences a one-man crusade to clear his dead friend’s name. He determines to investigate the “accident” surrounding Harry Lime’s death, at first suspecting foul play, but eventually unearthing a much darker truth about good ol’ Harry. This tale of deception and discovery is Graham Greene’s oblique stab—oblique as Carol Reed’s cinematography—at moral relativism, especially in the human soul’s perception of and reaction to the truth.
Holly sets the tone for this theme when Calloway first implies that Lime was involved in the black market. Holly’s reaction isn’t to deny the statement, but to interpret it in such a way that justifies Lime: that Lime was perhaps a small-time operator, trading tires or gasoline or cigarettes—just like everyone else is in the city, sure, everybody, in a small way—and that Calloway is a petty policeman with a vindictive drive against Lime. Calloway calmly reassures him that Lime was one of the foulest criminals in Vienna, pays for the drinks, and arranges for Holly to go home. Calloway, at least, sees the truth, but he cannot force anyone else to accept it.
Holly, on the other hand, is a hopelessly flawed character. He fumbles through his fool-hardy investigations, making mistakes that tip his hand or are even fatal to others; at one point he even gets himself accused of murder. He misjudges, misapprehends, and misconstrues his way towards the truth. His real problem, however, is more than simple American blundering or romantic naïveté. The real problem—indeed, the problem that confronts most of the characters—is that they find it nearly impossible to reconcile the horrible facts about Lime with their own perceptions of him.
The elusive and powerful personality of Lime is not buried at his funeral. It looms large and mysterious in the background of the entire film, and fills the mind and thoughts not only of Holly but of everyone who knew him or had to deal with him, including Calloway and Lime’s girlfriend, the depressed and lonely Anna Schmidt (played by the beautiful and intense Valli). His personality is shrouded in darkness, and for the first half of the film the audience has no notion of what he looks like. Even then, the first glimpses of Harry are—like the snapshots of his personality as seen through the eyes of Holly and Anna and Calloway—incomplete, swathed in shadow and questionable gloom. With time the audience gleans that he was Holly’s closest companion, a flippant and amicable man, a treasure-trove of useful facts, little tricks, and hints of humor. He was Anna’s roguish beloved, a charmer, light-hearted and loveable. He was their friend; but according to the police file, he was a fiend. They all saw him in a way which seems to contradict Calloway’s accusations. Who was Harry Lime? What is the truth about him? What is true? Is it, after all, just a question of perspective?
This problem, like Harry’s personality, is more than what it appears. “Stop making him in your image,” a pained Anna rebukes Holly, “Harry wasn’t just your friend and my lover. He was Harry. A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.” Anna perceives that Holly adjusts his memory of Lime to fit his own sympathies and emotions. She’s partly right: Lime hasn’t changed. However, what they know about him has, and so their judgment of him should. As they uncover the nasty and brutal facts about Lime’s racketeering, which caused death and irremediable harm to many, they are granted a glimpse into his real character. They can accept the truth, or reject it. Holly struggles with this choice, flopping back and forth like a pendulum, whether to side with the police for justice or with Lime for loyalty. Anna, for her part, eventually falls prey, in a way, to the sin for which she reprimands Holly. Her love for Lime borders on obsession—she absently calls Holly “Harry” when she is deep in discussion with him; she wears his pajamas, cries herself to sleep thinking of him. She clings hopelessly to her personal memory of Lime, without reconciling it to reality, remaining loyal to this illusion and ignoring the truth; consequently, she forever closes herself off from the kindness, love, and life offered her by others. She accepts only her vision of him—in other words, makes him in her image—and refuses to see the truth.
For the sake of this review, it is necessary to reveal a few plot points; I will not give away the ending, merely a crucial mid-way detail. If you do not want this spoiled for you, then please read no further.
This problem of perspective on the truth is most perfectly manifested when—in a sequence which is so beautifully filmed it invariably sends tingles up the spine—it is suddenly revealed that Harry is not six feet under. He is alive and well. Holly catches a mere glimpse of him, and then he’s gone, disappearing into the dark city streets once more.
Later, however, he is able to meet with him, and the interview seems almost unreal. Holly meets Lime at a Ferris wheel and suddenly the audience understands why Holly and Anna have such a hard time deciding where their loyalties lie. Orson Welles’ performance is superbly subtle and disturbing. He’s devilishly charming, charismatic, a pleasant talker, possessing all the gentle outward qualities of a true friend. But again, something is not right. As they ascend the tilting world of the ferris wheel, Holly feebly attempts to rebuke Lime, and Lime reveals that he is the quintessence of moral relativism. He throws open the door of the Ferris wheel, and points to the people a hundred feet below on the sidewalk.
“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?”
To him, they are only blots on the road. They aren’t people. It’s all relative; it’s all a matter of perspective.
It’s not until the final moments that both Holly and the audience catch a glance of Harry Lime in all his ugly reality. When the perspective, at last, is righted—through a brilliant chase sequence involving the sewer system of Vienna—we see Lime for what he is, at once as pitiable and repulsive as a rat caught in a trap. Holly is faced at last with the irrefutable, unambiguous, truth.
However, Greene and Reed end the film with an eerie, queer element of ambiguity, along with a powerful déjà vu sequence, which not only leaves the ending open and questions unanswered, but ultimately reinforces his point. The men and women of his tale have trapped themselves by their moral relativism, locked tight in their mental habits of denying the truth in favor of the “other side of the story,” which is really a lie. They embraced relativism and ambiguity; and in the end, that is all they have left. Because they could not accept the truth, unambiguous, whole and entire, they cannot escape to freedom and love.