The third man
The American Rollo Martins comes to Vienna during the Occupation. His friend Harry Lime invited him and paid for his trip. Although Rollo Martins only writes cheap Wild West novels, he is supposed to write a newspaper article about a welfare institution supervised by Harry Lime. In Vienna, he is surprised by the news that his friend has died in a traffic accident .
The American Holley Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to Vienna during the occupation period. Harry Lime (Orson Welles), with whom he has been friends for twenty years – since school days – invited him and paid for his trip. Although Holley Martins writes only cheap Wild West novels, he is to write a newspaper article about a welfare institution run by Harry Lime.
When Holley rings his friend’s doorbell, the janitor (Paul Horbiger) tells him that Mr. Lime was run over by a car in front of the house and his body is being buried at this moment in the central cemetery. Holley arrives just in time for the funeral.
At the cemetery a Briton (Trevor Howard) approaches him, introduces himself under the name "Calloway" and takes him back in his car. A jeep of the military police follows them. Holley gets himself invited to a bar. He himself cannot pay because he was supposed to get the necessary occupation money from Harry Lime first. He tells him about the schoolboy pranks that Harry Lime and he used to pull together. While he was mostly caught, Harry always got away in time. Alcohol makes Holley aggressive. When Calloway identifies himself as a colonel of the British Military Police and calls Harry Lime a criminal, Holley wants to strike. Calloway’s driver Paine, who had taken an inconspicuous seat at the next table, strikes him down with a hook to the chin. Calloway gives Holley some money, promises him a return ticket for the following day and instructs Paine to put him up in a hotel.
Paine is an avid reader of Holley’s dime novels. In the hotel lobby, he enthusiastically introduces him to Mr. Crabbin, the chairman of the Cultural Relations Society, as an American writer. Holley has never heard of Holley Martins, but is pleased to be able to offer something to the members of his organization and invites him to attend a discussion on modern literature the evening after next. The Cultural Relations Society will also pay his expenses during his stay in Vienna. Holley Martins only cares that he can stay in Vienna, because he wants to prove that Colonel Calloway’s accusations against Harry Lime are false.
An acquaintance of Harry Limes named Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) calls him and arranges to meet him in a cafe. He tells him about Harry Lime’s accident. Immediately in front of the house where Harry Lime lived, he was walking with him on the sidewalk when an acquaintance called out from the other side of the street. Harry Lime has stepped into the street and been run over by a car. A little later Harry is Lime’s family doctor Dr. Winkler (Erich Ponto) comes by and finds out that he is dead.
Holley notices that several of Harry Lime’s acquaintances – but no strangers – were present at the accident or shortly thereafter. Only the janitor believes to have seen from the window how three men carried the casualty away from the street. Three men?! Kurtz said only he and another acquaintance of Harry Limes, a Romanian, were there. This is also confirmed by the Romanian whom Holley meets in a bar.
Harry Lime’s mistress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) he finds working as an actress in a theater in Josefstadt.
Holley looks around Harry Lime’s apartment and expresses the suspicion that Harry Lime has been murdered. The janitor excitedly refuses: he does not want to be involved in the matter and does not want to have anything to do with the police. Some time later he arranges to meet Holley in the evening to tell him more. When Holley and Anna arrive, he is being carried out of the house with his throat cut.
Anna is arrested by the international police because her passport is forged. Harry Lime procured it because otherwise, as a Czech, she would not have been allowed to stay in Vienna. Colonel Calloway keeps the fake ID, but protects it from his Russian colleague and lets it go.
Holley returns to his hotel. When he asks for a cab to go to Colonel Calloway and tell him about his suspicion that Harry Lime was deliberately run over and murdered, a driver is already waiting for him in the hotel lobby. The races with him to the Cultural Relations Society event – which Holley had completely forgotten about. Mr. Crabbin and the audience are already waiting for him. At first they think he is joking when he is asked his opinion of James Joyce and says he doesn’t know him. But then things get awkward, and Mr. Crabbin watches in despair as the first listeners leave the hall.
When there is finally no one left, and Holley prepares to leave, he notices just in time that two men are waiting for him outside the door. He runs up a staircase, crosses an unlit room and escapes through the window.
When he shows up at Colonel Calloway’s office, the latter decides to tell him about the police investigation in order to dissuade him from further inquiries with which he would endanger himself and others. Harry Lime had organized a black market in penicillin. That only existed in the military hospitals of the occupying forces. Paramedics stole it there for Harry Lime. Solvent patients could then buy it from him. To increase the already huge profit, he had the penicillin diluted. In the process, he accepted that the contamination would lead to serious secondary diseases and deaths.
Holley gets drunk in a bar and then goes to Anna’s in the middle of the night. He wanted to say goodbye because he had decided to leave Vienna the next morning. He does not want to say what he has learned about Harry Lime – but Anna knows anyway.
When Holley is back on the street, he sees a man standing in a dark doorway of a house. A cat plays with his shoe laces. Suddenly light falls on the face: it is Harry Lime! He runs away. Holley follows him, hears his footsteps on the pavement, sees his shadow flitting over the walls of the house – but suddenly he is gone. Holley tells Colonel Calloway about it, but he doesn’t believe him until the police come across an entrance to the city’s sewer system hidden in an advertising pillar at the location indicated.
He has Harry Lime’s grave opened. The dead man is Joseph Harbin. Who had stolen the penicillin for Harry Lime.
Kurtz lives in the Russian zone. Colonel Calloway can’t go there. But Holley seeks him out. Also Dr. Winkler is there. Holley asks the two men to tell Harry Lime that he wants to see him on the Ferris wheel.
In fact Harry Lime comes. He almost held out his hand, but did not, for he knew that Holley would refuse the handshake. They get alone into a car of the Ferris wheel. When they reach the top of the apex, the Ferris wheel stops. Each of them thinks of pushing the other out of the cart. No one can do it. Harry Lime faked his death because the police in the British sector were close on his heels. He is now in hiding in the Russian sector. As they talk about Anna, Holley realizes that Harry Lime does not love her. They look down on the people, who look tiny from this height, and Harry Lime asks Holley if he would turn down 20000 pounds if he offered him that amount for every dead "dot" down there. As they part, Harry Lime tells his friend he can always reach him through Kurtz if he wants to talk to him.
In order for Colonel Calloway to let Anna leave Vienna by train, Holley agrees to play decoy for him. Just before the train leaves, Anna sees Holley through her compartment window. She sees through him, gets out and stays in Vienna.
Holley feels miserable, again refuses to let his friend fall into the clutches of the police and now wants to leave Vienna for good. Colonel Calloway offers to take him to the airport. On the way, he shows Holley children in a hospital who have contracted meningitis from Harry Lime’s adulterated penicillin. Thus he wins Holley for his plan.
Via Kurtz, Holley arranges to meet Harry Lime in a cafe. As Holley waits there, Anna sees him sitting down. She goes to him and accuses him of betraying his friend. At this moment Harry Lime is standing in the doorway. He hears a few words and realizes what is going on. He flees into the sewers. Holley, Colonel Calloway, his driver Paine and a posse of policemen pursue him in the maze. Harry Lime shoots Paine. Although he is also hit by a bullet, he continues to run and crawls up a shaft. He tries to give up the duct grate to get out into the open, but he is too weak. Holley finds him. The friends look at each other, and Harry nods. A shot cracks.
Harry Lime’s funeral is attended only by Anna Schmidt, Holley Martins and Colonel Calloway. Without saying a word, Anna leaves after the ceremony. The two men ride in Colonel Calloway’s car and pass her on a long avenue. Suddenly, Holley asks the colonel to stop. He gets off the train and waits for Anna, but she walks past him without paying him any attention.
Graham Greene wrote the story "The Third Man" as a template for the planned film. "And the film is actually better than the original narrative because in this particular case it is the definitive version of the narrative," he himself said.
With this realistic story, the English writer holds a mirror up to post-war society. Good citizens don’t want to get into trouble, so they don’t help police fight crime. Others – remarkably, Graham Greene chooses compatriots for the role – indulge in conversation about art and culture to distract themselves from the lowlights of real life. But not always life fear and uncertainty can be suppressed. Love and friendship collide with unscrupulous profiteering. In confronting moral criteria, each must seek his own way. Even the unscrupulous beneficiary of other people’s misery is not demonized, but portrayed as an intelligent person. Harry Lime is by no means the incarnation of evil par excellence.
On this basis, Carol Reed designed a crime film that is as exciting as it is enigmatic. In addition to the outstanding actors, Robert Krasker’s light-and-shadow dramaturgy was also instrumental in making "The Third Man" a classic. For the cinematography there was also an "Oscar".
Carol Reed’s film is still a very tense thriller nearly six decades after its premiere; it was a sensation at the time. (Gunter Rohrbach, Suddeutsche Zeitung, 30. October 2006)
In an illustrated guide, Alexander Gluck follows the paths of the film characters: "On the Tracks of the Third Man in Vienna" (Pichler Verlag, Vienna 2014, ISBN 978-3-85431-664-0).