Spoilers Ahead: Although I don’t go very deep into the plot of the movie The Third Man (1949), some of my comments may reveal key plot twists and bits of dialogue that could detract from your enjoyment of the movie if you have yet to see it.
This post is part of the Great Villian Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy. Please visit any of those wonderful sites to read more posts about great movie villains.
Sometimes an actor or actress will appear in a movie for just a short amount of time but will still make an enormous impact that is felt for a long time afterward. There may be no better example of this than the appearance of Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949).
Although he doesn’t appear until a little over an hour into the film and only appears in a few key scenes, his character of Harry Lime is considered by many to be one of the most fascinating and mysterious movie villains of all time. And I know I’m not alone in thinking his first appearance in the film was one of the most “electrifying” in movie history.
One look at the expression on his face may be all you need to see to understand just how devious yet charismatic Harry Lime was. In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert described the entrance this way, “The sequence is unforgettable: the meow of the cat in the doorway, the big shoes, the defiant challenge by Holly, the light in the window, and then the shot, pushing in, on Lime’s face, enigmatic and teasing, as if two college chums had been caught playing a naughty prank.”
I first watched The Third Man over a decade ago, and it has remained one of my all time favorite movies since then. There is no doubt that there were many others who made the movie the masterpiece that it is; Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Trevor Howard along with several other interesting character actors made up a great cast.
The unique locations in post World War II Vienna, the masterful direction by Carol Reed, the stunning and Academy Award winning cinematography of Robert Krasker and the unforgettable score by Anton Karas are all important reasons why this is such a great movie.
But it is perhaps Orson Welles’ intense portrayal of Harry Lime and his influence on the film that is most remembered today.
Much has been written and debated about the movie and whether or not Orson Welles’ former work influenced its style. Some have even gone so far as to question whether it was actually Welles who did most of the directing, not Carol Reed. Since I am no expert on the topic, I will not attempt to do any in depth analysis but will share the insights of a few others that I discovered while researching the movie.
Other Actors Considered for the Role of Harry Lime
Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, and Noel Coward were all rumored to have been considered for the role of Harry Lime. Producer David O. Selznick was against the casting of Orson Welles as he considered him at the time to be box office poison, but thankfully Carol Reed won out with his choice of Orson Welles as I believe he was the perfect actor for the role.
A character study published on the British Film Institute’s Screenonline website gives some interesting insight into the character of Harry Lime and explains some of his actions that made him such an intriguing villain.
There was one point the author made that I really identified with as it was something I pondered after watching the movie, “The conundrum of The Third Man has to do with why otherwise good people – above all his girlfriend Anna but also the film’s audience – remain loyal to Harry despite what he’s done.”
The Influence of Orson Welles on the Style of The Third Man
In an introduction to the movie, director Peter Bogdanovich expressed his thought that the look and feel of the film would have been unthinkable without Orson Welles’ earlier movies Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai or The Stranger. Athough Orson Welles claimed to have had no influence over the production saying, “Carol Reed was a hell of a director and he didn’t need my opinion,” Bodganovic did think that Reed was at least partly influenced by Orson Welles as a director.
One contribution that Welles is said to have made was writing the often quoted “cuckoo clock speech” in the famous scene with Joseph Cotten filmed on the Wiener Riesenrad, a Ferris wheel in Vienna:
“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? – The cuckoo clock!”
As I mentioned before, the movie The Third Man and Orson Welles’ portrayal of Harry Lime in particular made a great impact that is still being felt today. Following are just some of the ways in which the film still lives on.
- Orson Welles starred in 52 episodes of a radio series called The Lives of Harry Lime from 1951-52, and you can listen to those episodes by clicking on the previous link. The show served as a “prequel” to the film and centers on Harry Lime’s adventures before his “death” in the movie.
- Fans of the movie can take a tour called “Vienna Walking Tour: In the Footsteps of The Third Man”. On the tour, guides take participants to visit famous film locations such as Harry Lime’s apartment at Josefsplatz or the famous Hotel Sacher and Cafe Mozart.
- The Third Man Museum located in Vienna is dedicated to the film and post World War II Vienna. The museum offers daily guided tours and includes items used in the making of the movie including the zither used by Anton Karas to record the film’s score. Vienna has long been near the top of my dream list of European cities to visit, and now it is even more so thanks to these two attractions.
- Film critic Rogert Ebert added the film to his list of Great Movies, placing it in his top 10 greatest films of all time. Ebert remarked of the film, “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.” He mentioned that he first saw it on a rainy day in a tiny, smoke-filled cinema on the Left Bank in Paris. That sounds amazing!
- Harry Lime appears at #37 on the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains list and the movie itself appears at #75 on the AFI’s list of 100 most thrilling films.
The Third Man was released as a two-disc set through the Criterion Collection with several special features including audio commentaries and two separate documentaries on the making of the film, however it appears to be out of print and is therefore quite expensive to purchase. It is now also available on Blu-ray. If you have yet to watch The Third Man, I would highly recommend it, at the very least to see if you agree with so many that it is one of the greatest movies of all time.