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The Third Man

The Third Man (1949) is a film noir directed by Carol Reed. The screenplay was written by novelist Graham Greene. Greene wrote a novella of the same name in preparation for the screenplay, and this was published in 1950. more...

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The story is set in a bomb-damaged Vienna, just after the Second World War, and is told from the point of view of a mildly successful pulp author, Holly Martins, who is searching for his schoolfriend Harry Lime who had invited him to visit.


At the beginning of the film, Martins discovers that his old friend Harry Lime, whom he had not seen in several years, has been killed in an accident under mysterious circumstances just prior to Martins' arrival in Vienna. He finds that there was more to Lime than he knew and that he was accused of being a black market racketeer, trafficking in poor quality penicillin. Martins is told that Lime was struck by a truck while crossing a street. On several accounts, two of Lime's friends carried Lime's body off the street after the accident. All eyewitnesses to the accident happen to be friends or associates of Lime, including the driver. Martins' investigation leads to another eyewitness not associated with Lime who claims that there was a third man who helped carry Lime's body. It is this "third man", Joseph Harbin, to whom the title of the film (which is essentially an elaborate MacGuffin) refers. A somewhat more hypothetical interpretation is that Harry Lime is the "third man", because they could as well have used the accident to kill Harbin.

Alternate version

The US version of The Third Man emphasizes Holly Martins' point of view rather than a racketeer's as shown in the UK version. This change was made by David O. Selznick, who did not think American audiences would relate to the seedy tone of the original. Most noticeably in the UK version, the opening monologue, spoken by Reed himself , was re-recorded for the US release by Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins).

Adaptation of the source material

Before writing the screenplay, Greene worked out the atmosphere, characterization and mood of the story by writing a novella. This was written purely to be used as a source text for the screenplay and was never intended to be read by the general public, although it was later published (alongside The Fallen Idol).

The narrator in the novella is Col. Calloway, a policeman, which gives the book a slightly different emphasis from the screenplay. A small portion of his narration (given to Martins in the American release, and to an unidentified, unseen and never-returned-to character voiced by Reed in the British release) is retained in a modified form at the very beginning of the movie, the part in which a voice-over declaims: "I never knew the old Vienna..."

Other differences include the nationality of both Martins and Lime; they are English in the book. Martins' first name is Rollo rather than Holly. Popescu's character is an American called Cooler.

Perhaps the fundamental difference is the end of the novella, in which it is implied that Anna and Rollo (Holly) are about to begin a new life together, in stark contrast to the unmistakable snub by Anna that makes the end of the movie so memorable. Anna does walk away from Lime's grave in the book, but the text continues: "I watched him striding off on his overgrown legs after the girl. He caught her up and they walked side by side. I don't think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story. He was a very bad shot and a very bad judge of character, but he had a way with Westerns (a trick of tension) and with girls (I wouldn't know what)." In some prints of the film, the last few seconds have been deleted to try to conceal the snub and manufacture the happy ending of the book.


The atmospheric use of black and white cinematography (by Robert Krasker), harsh lighting and distorted camera angles, combined with the unique musical theme and excellent performances from the cast, all serve to convey the atmosphere of post-War Vienna, creating the tension inherent in the story, and making this one of Reed's best-loved films.


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