WRITERS ON SCREEN: THE THIRD MAN – The Question of a Happy Ending, Pt 3

I’m just a hack writer who drinks and falls in love with girls.–Holly Martins in The 3rd Man

CottenI’m trying to figure out if writing pulp Westerns made writer Holly Martins, the hapless sentimental sap he is in the movie The Third Man or if his golly-gee Americanism is merely a by-product of the mid-20th century white middle class American upbringing. Maybe it was a little of both, at any rate he’s no match for the down and out dame, Anna, former squeeze of our boy in Vienna Harry Lime.Welles3

All through the film Martins carries a torch for this babe that is as big as the Statue of Liberty’s, but she’s not into him at all. She’s a member of The Women Who Love Men Who Are Assholes Club and her dues are paid up in perpetuity. Still, Martins insist on clinging steadfastly to denial.

So, he’s without funds, a job, or language skills in a foreign city/culture, but the fact that he’s a writer bails him out of hard luck, when Sgt. Paine of the British peacekeeping forces, who happens to be a big fan of Holly Martins’ westerns, manages to hook Martins up with Crabbin the British Cultural Propaganda attaché. Crabbin desperately needs to fill an upcoming guest lecturer spot and is only too happy to pay for Martins hotel stay, as well as, give him an honorarium for his services. Sweet, however…

Maj. Calloway is not well pleased, especially when his men come to toss Anna’s apartment in the belief she knows more about Harry Lime’s nefarious activities then she’s letting on, and find Holly Martins there. Holly, the perpetually indignant American and, now doofus in love protests: of course Anna has nothing to do with anything criminal and neither did Harry, and Martins’ is going to get to the bottom of what really happened to Harry! Because there was a third man there when Harry was knocked over by that hit and runner! To which Calloway replies: “Leave death to the professionals.” To which Holly Martins retorts, “Mind if I use that line in one of my Westerns?” Sounds like a writer to me, baby.

As the film progresses and Martins’ optimism in the face of the undeniable facts about “the best friend he ever had” crumble like the ruins of Vienna crumbling all around him,  the film reaches its denouement in the catacombs of the Viennese sewers with the action playing out like a pulp Western where the marshal pursues the bad guy who happens to be his boyhood friend. This is a major bummer for Holly, but there’s Anna, who Martins has managed to rescue from deportation in a move that provides him with a free playing field, but guarantees she will never play.

Alida Valli (Anna), Joseph Cotton (Holly Martins) and Trevor Howard (Major  Calloway)


“One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.” – Graham Greene


Finally, in the closing scene which brings us full circle Martins still holds out for a happy ending with Anna, but that hope is as empty as the landscape. And we know as the credits roll that Holly Martins is tripping off on some Scarlet O’ Hara type vibe, and Anna hasn’t seen the last of him. The dope.

Bernard Lee (Sgt.Paine), Joseph Cotton (Holly Martins) and director, Sir Carol Reed

There are so many wonderful stories connected with The Third Man such as when Sir Carol Reed, the director and Graham Greene met with David O. Selznick, who produced the film. At the meeting Selznick allegedly said, “Get a better title. Who’s going to see a film called The Third Man?”

But my favorite is about the dispute over the ending where Selznick proved prescient when he sided with Reed against the writer Graham Greene in favor of not having a happy ending.











One Comment

Comments are closed.