WRITERS ON SCREEN: THE THIRD MAN – The Question of a Happy Ending, Pt 2

Perhaps boredom drives one to creativity – to get rid of it. – Graham Greene

America had swooped into WWII like John Wayne or Gary Cooper with an “Aw shucks, ma’am twern’t nothing.” When victory was achieved over the Axis powers, this was the world’s eye view of the white American male during the time Graham Greene’s story of The Third Man takes place.

The film released in 1949 and directed by one of the best directors of the 20th Century, Sir Carol Reed is now a noir classic, as well as, one of the greatest films ever made. It is as famous for its music by zither composer/player Anton Karas, as it is for its cinematography by Robert Krasker and its exceptional cast, which includes  Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles (with whom Cotten starred in Citizen Kane), Trevor Howard and Alida Valli, a real life Baroness no less.

Orson Welles

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a pulp Western writer, who along with many other writers eeking out a living writing the pulps, finds himself out of work at the end of WWII, when paper shortages forced most pulp publishers to close their doors. That’s right! They were called pulp (fiction) because they were printed on pulp–low-grade paper– unlike magazines, which were printed on glossy or ‘slick’ paper.

Holly Martins travels to Vienna, Austria in pursuit of a job offered to him by his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles at his best). Vienna is a city in sectors after the war, run by a coalition of allied forces called The Allied Control Council consisting of British, American, French, and Russian peacekeeping forces. Martins lands in the British sector where Harry lives and is immediately mise en abyme, plunged into the abyss (or in the vernacular dropped in the shit) of Vienna’s dark unforgiving underbelly.

Martins arrives at Harry’s apartment only to learn from a neighbor that Harry has been: “Knocked over by a car in front of the building,” and that Harry’s body is on its way to be buried. Martins is all wide-eyed with disbelief. How can Harry be dead?

Still, not convinced he hot-foots it over to the graveyard where he meets the key players in Harry’s life: Major Calloway, (Trevor Howard) head of the British Military Police and Anna (Alida Valli) the woman who loved and still loves Harry unconditionally, and perhaps unwisely. When will we learn?

Major Calloway is one of my favorite characters in The Third Man. He’s the real deal English soldier of the period: as cool as a gin and tonic, sharp, forthright and sardonic the perfect straight man for the volatile, and quixotic writer Holly Martins, whose emotions seem to live right on the surface of his skin. Calloway is not at Harry Lime’s funeral as a mourner, he’s there to gather intel, to see who shows up.

Calloway offers to buy Martins a drink. He wants to know how much Martins knows about Harry. After Martins has had a few he starts to spill his guts about how he met Harry and the depth of his feelings for Harry as a friend, blah, blah, belch, blah. Calloway says:

“That sounds like a cheap novelette.”

 “I write cheap novelettes! Ever hear of, The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, Death at DoubleX Ranch? Martins retorts, as only an offended writer can.

Joseph Cotten losing his religion in The Third Man

When Calloway says, in that deadpan way of his, that death was the best thing that could have ever happened to Harry, Martins, now totally wasted, jumps up and takes a swing at him, but Calloway’s man Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) has been hanging back in the corner, and he intercepts Martins before any damage is done. Calloway tells Paine to leave it: “He’s only a scribbler with too much drink in him. Take Mr. Holly Martins home.”

Well, when Sgt. Paine hears the name Holly Martins, he perks up. He knows Holly Martins. Sgt. Paine has even read, Death at DoubleX Ranch, and he likes a good Western. You’ve got to love a devoted fan. They will show up in the most unlikely places. We all know this because we are all fans of something. This is a gratifying moment for the now drunk and incapable Martins, but the real value added bit is that it gives Martins some street-cred with Calloway, and Calloway is the kind of man you want on your side.

Unfortunately, our boy Holly Martins is now in a pickle: he’s broke in a foreign city where he doesn’t speak the language, he’s under suspicion by the military police, and the only person he knows in town is dead. But then there’s Anna…

THE THIRD MAN, Alida Valli, Joseph Cotten, 1949