The Third Man : Mr. Welles, Mr. Lime and Mr. Wu

Carol Reed’s 1949 classic Film Noir The Third Man, based on Graham Greene’s screenplay, completes 70 years. its famous for its unique atmosphere, zither music, and Oscar winning camerawork. Above all it provided Orson Welles with his most iconic role.


You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 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.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime



Pulp writer Holly Martins,played by Joseph Cotten, arrives in Vienna at  the invitation of his childhood friend Harry Lime. Lime had promised him a job . But just a few hours before Holly arrived in Vienna, Lime is killed in an  accident. After Lime’s funeral, Holly remain in Vienna to discover the truth about his friend’s death.Post war Vienna is practically a border town now,  which is divided into four sectors, each controlled by one of the occupying forces: American, British, French,and Soviet. In the course of the investigation, he meets Lime’s mistress Anna, who believes that Lime death is not accidental. A porter, who  witnessed  Lime’s death,  talks of a “third man” at the scene of Harry’s death. As he gets to know more and more about Lime , he realizes that Lime is a seedy character. A Racketeer, most feared in the post war Viennese underworld, who indulges in the heinous crime of stealing penicillin from military hospitals, and selling it on the black market, diluted so much that many patients died. Disillusioned by these revelation he decides to leave Vienna after meeting Anna, whom he has fallen in love with, for one last time. While in Anne’s apartment, he see a mysterious figure shadowing him in the street.he goes out to confront him. We only see this figure’s legs , while his face is hidden in Darkness   We see Anne’s cat scratching his shoes, suddenly the light comes on in a neighborhood apartment and for a moment, the face of the person hiding in the darkness is revealed. It is Orson Welles playing Harry Lime. His face is an ocean of emotions as Mischief,affection, distrust, taunt, whimsy,condescension .. flits through his face in the space of seconds. Then the light goes off again and Orson’s Harry Lime disappears into darkness. This scene is perhaps the greatest character introduction scene in movie history and Orson Welles’ Harry Lime , the greatest cameo performance.



Orson Welles was a true renaissance man. A master of all trades; Writer,Director, actor, magician, Radio Star, Movie star, you name it he has done it. He made Citizen Kane , which is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made, at age of 26.There isn’t an artist who has generated so many myths,so many legends in his lifetime and beyond as Welles. One of those myths is that he directed the 1949 film The Third Man. And honestly every minute of the 105 minute movie screams Orson Welles either Stylistically or thematically. And top of that, Welles does have a great cameo appearance in the film.But whatever the myth , the truth is that the film is the creation of the great British director Carol Reed. But he was definitely influenced by Orson Welles’ movies .  Welles himself has dismissed the notion that he was the ‘real’ director of the film . His sole contribution to the film, apart from his acting, was the dialogue that is quoted at the beginning of this piece.


The style of the The third man is very influenced by Citizen Kane, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, all of which Welles made in the 40’s, and all came before The Third Man. We get most of the stylistic tricks that Welles employed in the above mentioned movies;  The theatricality, the strange camera angles , the high contrast visuals , with the usage of expressionist light and shadows,The fast paced editing, The overlapping dialogue,The sudden mood changes from comedy to tragedy and back , the whimsical tone that is maintained in the extraordinary  zither score(Anton Karas) and in the performances, especially Welles’ . Then there is the theme and characters of the picture. Like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Harry Lime here, played by Welles  ‘dies’ at the beginning of the film. The rest of the film deals with a journey into the past of the character by his friends and colleagues.  Both Harry Lime and Kane are very similar characters, Both charismatic rouges, morally ambiguous megalomaniacs. Then there is the familiar Wellesian theme  of friendship and betrayal, with  Joseph Cotten (Welles’ reel & real life friend and  stock actor) playing a writer ,very similar to the one he played in Citizen Kane, with his unwavering devotion to the central character played by Welles,though this film does not have the epic sweep of Citizen Kane, The film also bears resemblance to The Stranger, where we had Welles playing a character – a Nazi – hiding from the authorities and he is hunted down by the war crimes investigator played by Edward G. Robinson. His wife unaware of his past, is devoted to him till the end. He meets a gruesome death impaled by the very clock that he was repairing.There is an exciting chase in and on an elaborate clock tower as through the sewers here in Third Man. Also Welles mentions a clock in his famous speech.




The introduction of Harry Lime comes almost an hour into this 1 hr 45 min film.  After he makes his appearance, he is there in the film for about 3 scenes.In his introduction scene we see him on the street at night. in his next scene we see him high up in the skies- on a Ferris wheel- looking down on his dark empire and the human beings he ruthlessly destroys.In The  final scene(s), we find him in the underground sewers ,literally the underworld.    The post war Vienna , with its bombed out buildings ,dark alleys and streets  resembles hell on earth and Harry Lime is it’s lord, Lucifer.The heavenly being striving for the highest seat of heaven only to be cast down to the underworld. He has the Satan’s seductive power over his Lady love,his accomplices , even Holly. Holly his friend turned foe, may be a stand in for Archangel Michael, who has to take it upon himself to destroy Harry, which he does at the end of the film. But even after Harry’s death, we see that his mistress Anna is still under his spell and ignores Holly in the final scene of the film.


Welles referred to his role  in the film as the ‘Mr Wu’ part. He describes ‘Mr Wu’ as follows ;All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour shrieking, ‘What will happen when Mr. Wu arrives?’ ‘What is he like, this Mr. Wu?’ and so on. Finally a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mr. Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, ‘Mr. Wu!!!’ The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everyone says, ‘Isn’t that guy playing Mr. Wu a great actor!’ That’s a star part for you! What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride.”

This is exactly what happens in the film.Up until his introduction, everybody has been talking about Harry Lime. Though he has not appeared yet, we feel his presence in every frame of the film.So when he makes his appearance at the end of the second act, the audience are already in awe of him.Just like Holly , Anna and others in the film are.In a way, all Orson Welles’characters are Mr Wu parts.  Kane, Mr. Arkadin, Hank Quinlan,…we hear and learn a lot about them before we meet them in the film, except that they make their appearance in the first act itself.They are all built up to mythical proportions, before the film tears them down, piece by piece, from the point they make their appearance to the end of the film. All Welles Films have that structure of a Shakespearean tragedy.


And to give Reed due credit, this is a more warmer film than any of Welles films, which are rather cold. The characters and story arcs of Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and the lawman Major Calloway  (Trevor Howard )  bears the imprint of Reed. In a way,The film has two stories and two movie genres running in parallel. Holly and his search and encounter with Harry etc is one story which belongs to Noir. While Anna’s attempts at getting her documents in order to prevent herself from being deported and her love story with Harry (and Holly) is more melodrama.We also get a strange love triangle at the center of the film. Where Holly loves Anna and Anna loves Harry. But then Holly also loves Harry and there seems to be a competitive spirit between Holly and Anna to prove who loves Harry more.



Coming back to Welles’ monologue, what’s great about it is that, though  it’s filled with factual errors, its brilliantly camouflaged, giving the feeling that what’s said is true.. For one, Swiss did not invent the cuckoo clock, it was invented  in Germany and Second, when the Borgias flourished in Italy, Switzerland  was not a peaceful neutral country.  So it becomes a perfectly duplicitous statement coming from a duplicitous man. It is exactly the kind of statement that someone like Harry will make. Maybe its exactly the statement that Orson Welles, who is a master at spinning his own (not so truthful)  stories will make as well.  Obviously there was a lot of Harry Lime in Welles and vice a versa.Like Lime , Welles was both a lovable and a troublesome person to have around. He too was a charming rogue who manipulated people to his own ends..Welles was quite uncooperative during the production and didn’t turn up most of the time. Reportedly , he was getting back at the film’s producer Alexander Korda . Korda  had promised him several parts in his previous productions , none of which materialized. So Welles made Korda chase him all around for this, which is strange because Welles at the time was considered “box-office poison”  . All his films , except for The Stranger, were flops. He was also considered troublesome and hard to work with . RKO, which produced Citizen Kane , had terminated their ‘dream’ contract with Welles and butchered his second film The Magnificent Ambersons, a fate that will befall all his subsequent films.. He was persona non grata in Hollywood  .  Reed had to fight David O Selznick, the American producer (of Gone With the Wind fame) to get him in the picture .But once he got into the picture, he became enthusiastic about it and , of course contributed that famous monologue which he improvised on the day of the shoot.


And irony of ironies, it is Welles who benefited the most from the film. It became the biggest hit of his career. It also became his meal ticket for a while. as he wrote and performed episodes of a radio series, The Lives of Harry Lime, playing upon the success of the film. The series further fueled the rumors that it was indeed Welles and not Reed, who directed the film. Mr. Arkadin actually came out of one of those series. And as Welles influenced Reed, The third Man’s influence could be seen in  Welles’ next picture Touch of Evil, which was again about a hellish border town and A Lucifer like character lording over it.





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