Who’s on Third?

By

Published December 16, 2009

Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles) striking first appearance in The Third Man only occurs in the last third of the movie. And yet, the mythic villain of Carol Reed’s 1949 classic is one of film’s greatest characters. Welles, who regarded the potency of anticipation, once said, “Nobody talks about anything else for ten reels…What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few.” Assumed dead, supposed murdered, and talked about endlessly throughout the film, Lime finally appears, as if willed into existence, standing in the dark half-lit threshold of a doorway, a kitten playing at his feet.

Vienna’s rubble strewn, postwar streets double as an unnerving landscape as well as an optical playground, galvanized by Reed’s stretched shadows and tilted camera tricks. Enter Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp western writer, seeking new opportunities and a business proposition from his old friend, Harry. Foretold as he walks under a ladder in his opening scene, Martins’s pleasant nature immediately shifts upon his arrival at Harry’s apartment. Lime, hit by a car, is dead. A deceptive film noir whodunit is launched with a cast of corrupted and cynical, sometimes clowning, and sometimes more elusive types.

Steadily accompanying the cast are intimate portraits of Viennese strangers. An old man selling balloons appears shadow first, and a little boy, whose pointing and frightening shouts, encourage an entire mob to chase Martins into hiding. The memory of these portraits is awakened during the celebrated Ferris wheel episode, where Harry–who has profited from the victims of his penicillin racket–points to the faraway ground, and compares the people below to insignificant dots. Praised for unforgettable dialogue, speeches, style, and photography, scenes like the last are more involved in themes of morality and conscience.

In celebration of the film’s 60th anniversary, The Third Man will play at Film Forum December 18-29. Film Forum is at 209 West Houston Street in New York.