Black & White Morality: The Third Man at 70


In February 1948 Graham Greene visited the “smashed, dreary city of Vienna” in order to begin work on his treatment for The Third Man, an early Cold War thriller considered one of the great films of the 20th century –  what we now call a noir classic. Though brilliantly directed by Carol Reed, it is very much Greene’s film, pervaded by an awareness of human weakness and moral compromise. On the film’s release in September 1949, seventy years ago, audiences thrilled to the sharp dialogue and adrenalin-quickening suspense. Time seems only to have deepened the film’s power to move and unsettle. Post-war Vienna, grubby, grand and corrupt, provided Greene with an ideal setting for a melodrama of double-dealing and opportunistic political loyalties. Vienna stood at the crossroads between Soviet territories and the capitalist West, but co-operation between the Western Allies and the Russians had practically broken down by the time Greene arrived in the Austrian capital.  He saw fire-blackened buildings and displaced humanity on the streets: the film’s air of cynical disenchantment is informed by that bleak reality. In a world no less riven today by East-West antagonisms, The Third Man endures as a Cold War parable of conscience and betrayal.



Following Germany’s defeat, Vienna had been divided into four, often mutually antagonistic zones occupied by the Russians, the Americans, the French and the British. In this international no-man’s land Greene saw not merely defeat, but debasement. Virtually every Viennese was involved in black-marketeering. Vienna offered as sad a spectacle to Greene as Sarajevo or Baghdad would to a later generation. Some families were still camped out in the bomb-shattered city with their children, competing with the rats for food and shelter. The Germans have a term for movies set among the ruins of postwar cites – “Trümmerfilm” or “rubble films”. The Third Man is a significant British example of the sub-genre.


Venturing into the Russian zone, Green went up on a Ferris wheel in a bombed-out amusement park. As he looked down at the people far below, he conceived the film’s chilling Ferris wheel scene, where the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime (played by a devilish Orson Welles) asks his old friend Holly Martins whether he would really care if any of those “dots” on the ground stopped moving. For twenty thousand pounds a dot, surely anyone would wipe out hundreds of them. Lime’s own commerce in watered-down penicillin has resulted in the death or brain damage of children with meningitis. Lime is here a modern-day equivalent of the devil’s ambassador, who takes Martins to a high place to survey the world, alternately threatening and tempting him. “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings”, Lime says in justification of his racket. “Governments don’t, so why should we?”



Lime’s cynical words are spoken in shadow of the industrialized killings of Treblinka and the blinding flash of Nagasaki, which had brought unprecedented human destruction. Greene’s vision of a world made destructible by technology belied a personal fear. “Today the human body is regarded as expendable material”, he wrote in the Catholic journal Tablet in 1951, “something to be eliminated wholesale by the atom bomb, a kind of anonymous carrion.” Lime, a shabby Catholic compromised by greed and self-deceit, reassures Martin of his essential goodness: “Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.” A moralist troubled by theological evil in our time, Greene seeks to dissect Lime’s morally ambivalent world and the suffering he has caused.


Greene wrote The Third Man first as a novella, while on holiday in Italy in the summer 1948 just as Stalin was blockading Berlin. Fearing a Red takeover of all Germany, the western allies improvised an airlift for Berliners stranded in the eastern sector. Overnight a sense of insecurity infected the highest levels of Washington as Americans spoke fearfully of Moscow’s atomic capabilities. How long before a Red Square appeared in the heart of democratic Europe? The Third Man, brilliantly directed by Carol Reed, unfolds in the brief, uneasy truce between Hitler’s downfall and the onset of Cold War tensions over Berlin. The film’s gritty, neo-realist documentary quality, together with its expressionist camera angles and the eerie theme tune played by Anton Karas on an Austrian zither add to the atmosphere of paranoia and disquiet.

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