Cotten and Welles in THE THIRD MAN

Following is a special guest post by Greg McCambley @GregMcCambley

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When the opportunity to discuss any of cinema’s Dynamic Duos arose, my mind automatically went to one of my favourite movies of all time: Carol Reed’s, The Third Man (1949).  It is such a wonderfully evocative movie with its zither music score and its haunting images of war-torn Vienna.  Graham Greene’s brilliant script about a man who comes to Vienna to reunite with his best friend only to find that the reunion is anything but joyful is a masterpiece of writing.  A strong script needs the best performers to bring it to life, and The Third Man is well served by its casting of Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.  Despite not sharing much screen time together, these two longtime friends and co-workers create one of the most memorable cinematic friendships of all time.  Before I discuss this in more detail, just a reminder that if you have never seen the movie, severe spoilers lay ahead.

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As I mentioned before, Cotten and Welles don’t share a lot of screen time in this movie.  Thanks to Greene’s script, though, they didn’t have to.  The whole first half of the movie is about Harry Lime, as his friends (and enemies) see him.  Everyone we meet has ties to the man.  Holly Martins (Cotten) is a pulp writer who is down on his luck.  By all appearances, he is not a man who finds making friends easy.  And yet, he receives an invitation to come work in Vienna from his best friend Harry Lime, and he eagerly takes him up on it.  On arrival, he immediately makes his way to Lime’s home, only to discover that his friend is dead.  Discovering that his best friend is dead, Martins makes his way to the funeral, and it’s here that he meets the other important people in Harry’s life: his friends; his lover; and his nemesis.

After the funeral, Holly is at loose ends. He’s a stranger in a strange land, with no job and no future.  One has to wonder just how bad his life in the USA must have been at this point to send him flying to a city still rebuilding after war.  To me, though, this is strong evidence of just how much Harry meant to Holly. I highly doubt that Holly would have gone to Vienna for anyone else but Harry.  When he meets up with the British Military Police after the funeral, we get to see the depths of Holly’s feelings for Harry.  Harry is his closest friend; in fact, Holly describes him as his best friend.  And yet, Holly hadn’t seen him since the start of the war.  He knows nothing of what Harry was up to since then.  When Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) informs Holly of Harry’s criminal activities, Holly gets angry at the soldier.  He doesn’t believe a thing they tell him, or doesn’t care if it’s true or not: Holly’s chief concern is the fact that no one is going to investigate Harry’s death. No one, that is, except him.  And so begins Holly’s quest to find out the truth.

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Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins

Watching Holly stumble around looking for the truth to his best friend’s accident is one of the magical things about The Third Man.  Whatever Harry might or might not have been doing in Vienna, Holly is determined to investigate, and possibly avenge, his friend’s death.  Holly, however, proves to be a rather weak investigator.  He learns of discrepancies between various stories of what happened that day, but learns precious little more than that.  His investigation is interrupted by two key events. The first is the murder of Harry’s elderly landlord, and the other is being shown the police investigation files on Harry.  We see only a montage of him viewing the evidence, but by the end it’s clear that Holly is a shaken man.  The case against his friend clear, Holly wanders the nighttime streets of Vienna despondently (and probably a bit drunk as well).  His friend was not who Holly thought he was.  This turn of events leads to what can only be described as one of the most beautifully filmed acts of symbolism ever.

As Holly walks the streets of Vienna, he realises that someone is watching him from a doorway across the road.  He turns to confront them.  Someone turns a light on and standing there is Holly’s friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), very much alive.  A man of shadows, suddenly illuminated.  His response to his sudden reveal is a quick, sly grin, like a teenager caught in the act of pulling a prank.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime
Orson Welles as Harry Lime

Lime promptly disappears, but Holly knows it wasn’t a hallucination.  From this point onward, we’re not sure what Holly is going to do.  He immediately tells the police about Harry, and they start looking all over for him.  But Holly also meets up with Harry without informing anyone.  This is when the relationship between the two men really crystallizes, and is one of my favourite movie scenes.  Here’s the clip.

This conversation between Holly and Harry turns out to be their last in-depth conversation, as Holly arranges a trap for Harry.  Harry initially escapes the net, however, and the chase eventually leads into the sewers and storm drains of Vienna.

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The chase is a masterpiece of tension, with everyone unsure of where hunters and quarry are in relation to each other.  Eventually, though, it comes down to Holly and Harry.  Harry is involved in a shootout where, after he shoots a policeman, is in turn injured himself.  Holly grabs a gun and follows. Harry reaches for freedom through an unguarded drain cover, but fails.  Finally, the two friends are face to face yet again.  Major Calloway tells Holly to shoot if he sees Harry.  The final moments between the two friends is another wonderfully emotional moment. They say nothing. Holly just looks at Harry, a sad look on his face.  Harry simply nods slightly. Then, a gunshot is heard, and Holly slowly walks back out of the sewers.  We don’t see what happened in the tunnel, but we can guess.  For Holly, this is one dot that he is sad to see stop moving.

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This is Greg’s entry to the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film blogathon hosted by the fabulous, Annmarie at Classic Movie Hub and yours truly on Once Upon a Screen.  Please be sure to visit either host site to read some of the other posts dedicated to Dynamic Duos from all classic film eras and genres.

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15 thoughts

  1. I fully agree with the awesomeness that was Cotten and Welles in the Third Man. It’s one of my top 10 favorite films. Thanks so much for this post!

  2. The two actors are wonderful together in this and, as you say, they don’t need many scenes to put across their relationship. That scene overlooking Vienna, and the ending, are both astonishing.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I rarely recommend films for people to watch, but this one is the absolute top of my list of movies everyone should watch. It is a beautiful film.

  3. Thanks again for submitting this, Greg! And you know the offer is always open.

    Great discussion on The Third Man. I have to tell you that I must watch this film with absolutely zero interruptions because I’m not sure I get it. Except visually, which jumps right out at me.

    Aurora

    1. No problem. When I have another column for you, I’ll let you know! And watching it uninterrupted is the only way to see it. If you have any question, let me know. I’m no expert, but I’ll give answering it my best shot. 🙂

  4. Saw this film for the first time about 3 years ago and was knocked out! What’s so great is that they hold off on Welles’ reveal for so long that I actually forgot he was in the film. Then when he shows, I actually sat up and gasped. Great film! Great writeup! Thanks, Greg!

    1. That’s one of the many reasons I love it so much. He does so much with very little screentime, and he makes every line count.

  5. I love this movie, and this is a fantastic review of it too. There’s just something about these two men in a movie like this that makes all the sense in the world. They play it perfectly. As usual, I guess 🙂

    I’m so glad you posted this for us you two, thank you!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It was a tough writing assignment, as I wasn’t sure I was doing their pairing justice. But ultimately I’m glad I did it. I can’t sing the praises of The Third Man enough. 🙂

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