It has never happened in the history of film: the villain of a noir thriller is not seen for more than half of the narrative, even in a brief glimpse and yet, his signature tune plays in almost every second scene, as if setting the stage for the moment when he would emerge from the shadows eventually. ‘The Harry Lime Theme’, composed and performed by Mr. Anton Karas, a hitherto unknown Austrian musician particularly gifted with the zither, who was discovered one fortuitous day by director Sir Carol Reed, is suitably one of the most recognisable melodies in the annals of cinema. Having been renamed as ‘The Third Man Theme’, the tune of a little over a hundred minutes, both jaunty and unnerving, both eerie and wry, plays whenever a new revelation, either comic or startling, unfolds, as if gently lamenting and teasing the tragicomic situation at each new turn.
But the tune alone doesn’t matter; right from the beginning, we are constantly aware of the presence of something sordid, something sinister, lurking in the shadows of this cold and cobbled Vienna in the aftermath of the Second World War. It can be sensed in the opening montage itself, in the shifty-eyed racketeers peddling their trade covertly, in the anonymous corpse that bobs on the desolate Danube river and even as we are informed by seemingly reliable men that Harry Lime, “one of the worst racketeers” in the town, is dead and safely buried in an ice-bound grave, we soon realise that nothing here is what it seems.
This element of distrust and danger has to be attributed to the man who wrote The Third Man, beginning with the merest germ of an idea scrawled on the back of an envelope. Graham Greene was, by then, already a storyteller of both literary repute and justified popularity. When the famed film producer Alexander Korda coaxed him to work again on a film with Reed, following the success of The Fallen Idol, the dexterous English writer found himself confronted with a deadline to come up with an exciting little potboiler from the insufficient idea that he could think of at short notice. His trip to Vienna, with its typical guerrilla-style reportage of the division of the city by the Allied Powers, the thriving black market trade and the “underground police” patrolling the sewers that smelt like the river itself, as well as some inspiration from European crime cinema, ended up forming not only the ingeniously suspenseful and superbly ironic script of one of the greatest noirs ever made but also one of cinema’s most hauntingly life-like villains.
When our protagonist, the suitably out-of-depth American hack writer Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten in a fine performance of slippery earnestness and schoolboy bravado), arrives in this broken and baffling city, he is even more devastated to know that his friend Harry Lime, the very man who called him here on the promise of a job, has died and even been buried just moments before he arrived at his doorstep. He is, in the words of the porter who seems genuinely interested in lending a helping hand, “in hell or in heaven”. But the roving, reckless spirit inside Martins won’t relent so easily. When he learns from the coolly pragmatic Major Calloway (a ruthlessly charismatic Trevor Howard) that his friend is better off dead for all the unspeakable crimes he has done, Martins, the loyal scribe and friend, is compelled by his naïve idealism to clear his friend’s name by hook or by crook, a quest that only leads him to discover even more inconvenient truths than he imagined.
It would not spoil for the uninitiated to know that Lime is, as a matter of fact, not only alive but also successfully hiding throughout the film, a revelation that Reed and Greene skilfully, without warning, throw upon us when already things have been broken beyond repair, and damning secrets have been revealed. The scene of the scoundrel’s unmasking is one of cinema’s greatest, most silently suspenseful moments – a man stands cloaked in shadow on a pavement and when a bitterly drunk Martins challenges him to come out, a light is switched on in a window and its ray falls on Lime’s chubby face, grinning defiantly, as if perfectly unafraid of being caught or being recognised. The light is switched off, darkness returns and in the cover of shadows, the titular traitor flees and vanishes, literally, into thin air.
Some inspired viewers have found the most unlikely of parallels here, between the stark, gritty realism of the story and the terrifying Gothic myth of Count Dracula himself. Isn’t Lime supposed to be dead, that too safely bound inside a coffin? Has he cheated death and is prowling around in flesh and blood outside his grave? Indeed, that atmosphere of dread has a poisonous and elegiac feeling to it; the simmering suspense is accompanied by a macabre portent of doom and death, brought to life by Reed’s grimy frames, filmed dazzlingly by Robert Krasker, conveying all the sordid depths of moral depravity as envisioned by Greene.
But Harry Lime is more than just a monster; his actions, even when done in the name of seemingly noble romance or perverse intelligence, always have grotesque and unpleasant consequences. When we finally meet him in person, as Martins confronts him in the now desolate Giant Ferris Wheel, we are finally allowed a glimpse of just how far corruption and avarice have seeped into this scavenger’s soul. In a quietly tense monologue as the Wheel rotates, taking them to a dizzying height overlooking a city of ruination, Lime explains, nihilistically, why it is useless to care about “every dot that stopped moving” and about how his own five-year plans are the same as that of any government. In one cruel stroke, Martins’ idealism is destroyed into smithereens and moreover, his worship of his boyhood hero is reduced to nothing.
Lime’s famous parting quote, improvised by Orson Welles (the masterful thespian playing this silken scoundrel with his sly charisma), of how terror breeds art and how brotherly love creates only “cuckoo clocks”, is a fine summation up of his devious intentions. But typical of Greene, this scoundrel too is given an unexpected core of pathetic despair. In the frenetic, sweltering climax of the film, as the police of the four Allied Powers together chase Lime down in the sewers and as he flees from here to there with all exits blocked for an easy getaway, what Reed’s film achieves is the bitter irony of Fritz Lang’s M, coincidentally one of the writer’s favourite films. Just as in that still-influential crime classic, Peter Lorre’s repulsive yet pitiable child murderer, in Greene’s own words as a film critic, portrayed “love and lust; nobility and perversity, hatred of itself and despair jumping at you from the jelly”, Welles’ Lime, in the film’s almost heart-breaking climax, too conveys all these contradictory qualities to become a haunting spectre of survival and sordid evil that will linger forever.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.