The Cinematic Moment: Exploring Film Images as Moments of Action

The Third Man

The Third Man
BY Graham Greene
(Penguin, 1999)

The Third Man (1949) is one of that handful of motion pictures … that have become archetypes — not merely a movie that would go on to influence myriad other movies but a construct that would lodge itself deep in the unconscious of an enormous number of people, including people who’ve never even seen the picture.”

FROMThe Third Man: The One and Only”
BY Luc Sante
AT Criterion Collection

In 1950, Holly Martins flies into war-torn Vienna, blissfully anticipating meeting his old friend, Harry Lime. He tells a passport official he’s expecting to meet Lime, who sent him the airline ticket and promised him a job.

Martins (Joseph Cotton) goes to Lime’s apartment building where Vienna’s shadows grow larger, and a colorful Austrian porter says he’s too late. That very morning on the street outside, a truck smashed into Lime, and two men, Baron Kurtz and Popescu, carried him to the sidewalk where he died. That shocking news is the story’s first compelling moment and makes Martins want to know more.

So Martins hurries to a decorative Austrian cemetery, where British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) stands observing Lime’s funeral. With dismay Martins hears a priest praying and sees his friend’s coffin buried. He also notices three others attending the funeral, including an attractive young woman.

Major Calloway offers Martins a ride into the city, takes him to a café, and with a few drinks gets him to talk freely about his pre-war association with Lime. Calloway delivers a second shocker, saying how Lime died “was the best thing that ever happened to him… He was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city.”

Martins rejects Calloway’s revelation and grows even more determined to find out what happened. He learns that the young woman at the funeral was Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), an actress and Lime’s girlfriend. Intrigued, Martins goes to the theatre that night and visits her dressing room. Considering the odd coincidences surrounding Lime’s death, they begin to suspect that he was murdered. They meet with Lime’s porter again, and the old man unintentionally reveals that after the accident three men, not two, carried Lime to the sidewalk. Martins asks who was the third man?

The film’s three major turning points also occur as cinematic moments. A cat reveals to Martins that someone in a shadowed doorway is stalking him, and a neighbor’s sudden light reveals Lime’s (Orson Welles) face to Martins. Then a climactic moment occurs at the top of a huge Ferris wheel when Lime hints that if Martins gets too nosy he could die. But in a suspenseful moment Lime decides not to murder his trustworthy friend. Finally, at the end of a police chase through the sewers of the city, the ultimate cinematic moment occurs when Lime… well, in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending.

Graham Greene wrote the masterful screenplay, and Carol Reed directed the movie. Reed claims one sentence of Greene’s expressed the image that evoked this clever mystery: “I saw a man walking down the strand, whose funeral I had only recently attended.”

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