Stream On: Going Greene—‘The Third Man.’ First in an occasional series

By on August 31, 2023

The English writer Graham Greene (1904-1991) was regarded by many as one of the leading novelists of the 20th century. He wrote serious “Catholic novels” (he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926), and thrillers, which he regarded as “entertainments.” He wrote his most famous entertainment as a sketch for a screenplay, to work out the atmosphere, characterizations and mood for The Third Man, ranked in 2004 as the fourth greatest British film of all time by Total Film magazine.


/Amazon /Streaming /Archive.org /🍅99%🍿93% /Trailer /1949

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty 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 five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!” (Harry Lime)

Graham Greene tried to keep a bright line between his serious novels and his entertainments, but his Catholic faith informed all of his works—at the heart of The Third Man is sin, not just a black-market criminal faking his own death, but the moral hypocrisy impressed on those in his path, like footprints on grass.

Our “hero” is a writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, Shadow of a Doubt), who shows up in post-war Vienna, which the narrator (director Carol Reed) describes as being “bombed about a bit” in the hope of taking up his friend Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles, The Stranger) offer for a job. Like many Americans in Greene’s fiction, Martins feels entitled, but oblivious to much of what surrounds him. We might think of him as an innocent.

Martins hears that Lime is dead—killed by a car while crossing the street. At Lime’s funeral, Martins meets British Royal Military Police Major Calloway; and a friend of Lime’s, “Baron” Kurtz, who tells Martins that he and another carried Lime to the side of the street after the accident. Before he died, Lime asked them to take care of Martins as well as Lime’s girlfriend, actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli, an Italian actress that Benito Mussolini once called “the most beautiful woman in the world”).

The porter at Lime’s apartment house tells Martin and Schmidt that he saw a third man help carry away the body. He offers to give Martins more information later—but is murdered before Martins can talk to him. Martins confronts Major Calloway and demands that Lime’s “accidental” death be investigated. Calloway says that Lime was “better off dead,” and “one of the worst racketeers in Vienna,” stealing penicillin from military hospitals, diluting it and selling it on the black market, injuring or killing dozens if not more, including infants. Martins, convinced, agrees to leave, but that night spots his friend Harry hiding in the shadows of a doorway.

Martins gives Kurtz a message that he wants to see Harry, and they meet on Vienna’s Riesenrad, a giant Ferris wheel at the entrance to the Prater amusement park. When their compartment stops at the top of the ride, Martins tells Harry what he learned. Indignant, he asks Harry, “Have you ever seen any of your victims?”

“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,” Harry replies, before disappearing.

Meanwhile Anna, a Czech, who has come to the attention of the authorities as Lime’s girlfriend, is to be sent to the Soviet sector of the city—her Austrian passport had been forged. (Vienna, like Berlin, had been divided into zones, each governed by an Allied power. The narrator, in the opening, likened the city to Babel: “All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.”)

Calloway asks Martins to help arrest Lime. He agrees to help on the condition that Anna is given safe conduct out of Vienna. She’s about to leave on the train, not knowing about the plan, when she spots Martins, who had come to watch her departure. She forces the plan out of him but wants no part of it. Exasperated, Martins decides to leave Vienna, but on their way to the airport, Calloway stops at a hospital to show Martins some of Harry’s victims. He agrees to help the police again and they go after Harry.

The Third Man was a huge box-office success both in Europe and America, a success that reflected great critical acclamation … The legendary French critic André Bazin was echoing widespread views when, in October 1949, he wrote of The Third Man’s director: ‘Carol Reed … definitively proves himself to be the most brilliant of English directors and one of the foremost in the world.’ The positive critical reaction extended to all parts of the press, from popular daily newspapers to specialist film magazines, from niche consumer publications to the broadsheet establishment papers … Dissenting voices were very rare….” (Screenonline.org.uk)

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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