The Third Man – Sardonic, Savage and oh-so-Continental

[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]

The Third Man, Carol Reed’s Continental noir masterpiece set in the bombed-out ruins of a post-World War II Vienna carved up by occupying Allied forces, is more than half over when Harry Lime makes his memorable entrance. He’s just a dark presence in a doorway off a cobblestone street, noticed only by a stray cat, until the sudden spill of light from a nearby apartment sweeps away the shadows and catches him like a fugitive in the spotlight, revealing the chagrined look on the face of … Orson Welles! He simply flashes an impish smile to Joseph Cotten and skitters down the alley, his long shadow stretched across the walls behind him.

It’s more than just a getaway. Welles makes off with the entire movie in that moment — we just don’t realize it yet. His Harry Lime is a charmer, a lover, a scamp, a baby-faced crook carving out his place in the rubble-strewn underworld of postwar Vienna, and he dominates The Third Man with barely 10 minutes of screen time.

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles
Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles

A black marketeer with blood on his hands, selling bad penicillin responsible for crippling and killing countless children, Lime is the focus of every character, the subject of every conversation, and finally the target of a manhunt that carries the film down into the catacombs of Vienna’s underground sewer system. And still he commands the loyalty of his old buddy Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), the cynical American abroad who discovers, in addition to the love of a local beauty (Alida Valli), that the rumors of Lime’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

Welles makes the part his own in every way, turning a charming heavy into a mesmerizing sociopath whose poisonous charm is matched by icy arrogance and mercenary ruthlessness. He even penned Lime’s legendary monologue, delivered to Martins while they ride the Ferris wheel in the center of the city. As Lime looks down on Vienna like a dispassionate god, equating the tiny human figures below to insects, he voices the callous rationalization for his mercenary crimes with a sour smirk on his face.

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

Casual murder has never been so brazenly or seductively justified.

Harry Lime revealed
Harry Lime revealed

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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