40. The Third Man


“Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”1
Harry Lime in The Third Man

Two-thirds of the way into The Third Man, Orson Welles makes his screen entrance as the very much alive, but presumed dead, Harry Lime and with Graham Greene’s blessing adds a powerful cultural summation to his character’s amoral outlook on life.

“In Italy, for thirty years, under the Borgia’s they had warfare, terror, murder, 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. So long, Holly.”2

Harry Lime.fw

Immediately prior, a tight, tense scene is played out between Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime, and Joseph Cotton’s, Holly (or Rollo in Greene’s text) Martins on the surreal Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in the Russian zone amidst a war raged Vienna in 1949. Carol Reed, the Director, and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, deliver the backdrop of height to add the required visuals to Greene’s packed and threatening dialogue between Martins and Lime as they size each other up after Martins’ has discovered the faked death of Lime and that his old friend is a Penicillin racketeer effectively preying on the lives of the innocent. The possibility of Martins exposing his fake death, whilst he hides in the Russian zone continuing to run his black market activity, motivates Lime as he attempts to turn Martins into his collaborator. Martins, though, wants to accuse Lime of what he increasingly understands is a pattern of shoddy, self-interested behaviour coursing through the history of their friendship; Lime’s relationship with Anna Schmidt, whom Martins believes has been left to fend for herself; and the hospital wards filled with Lime’s “victims”. Lime, though, tries to play on the friendship they once had.

“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.”3

Ferris Wheel Ants.fw

Martins, who earns his living by writing Westerns, throws Lime’s words back, “A lot of good money will do you when you’re in jail”. To which Lime responds with a caustic statement of fact, delivered with a challengingly raised eyebrow and knowing smile, displaying that he is more than a match for Martins’ argument, “There’s no proof against me, besides you.”4

The dialogue continues with Martins taking swipes at Lime and Lime showing that he has the upper hand, courtesy of a gun, whilst trying to ingratiate his friend of old by sharing his new world vision with him.

“Holly. What fools we are talking to each other this way. As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me. You’re just a little mixed up about things in general. Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans and so have I.”5

Harry and Holly.fw

Lime’s stance is obviously at odds with Martins, due to the latter witnessing for himself the children’s hospital, courtesy of Major Calloway wanting Martins to see the extent of diluted penicillin. Martins, with a sense of melancholy, tries a different tack in the face of Lime’s apparent casting aside of humanity: “You used to believe in God.” To which Lime replies:

“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.”6

Then with a particularly malevolent half-opened eye, Lime asks, “What do you believe in?”7 only to follow with an instruction regarding the treatment of Anna if Martins is ever able to get her out of the mess that she is in with the Russian police investigating her papers.

Alida Valli.fw

These five minutes of electrifying dialogue from Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, light up the film to give a sense of urgency to the remaining twenty, which build into a Western-esque showdown in the sewers of Vienna. The motif is acted out though the gun slinging ‘sheriff’, Calloway, shooting but only wounding ‘his man’ after Lime shoots his ‘deputy’, Sergeant Paine. There is also a non-verbal exchange of looks between Lime and Martins that culminates in Lime nodding in resignation for Martins to end his life. His time has come, he is wounded, trapped and knows that his fate will be capital punishment for the shooting of Sergeant Paine, let alone his other nefarious deeds. A shot is fired and we see Martins walking back along the sewer out of Robert Krasker’s atmospheric and beautifully lit sewer mist. This time Harry Lime is, indeed, dead.

In the text, Greene writes a slightly different ending, which has Martins recounting the scene between Lime and him afterwards to Calloway. Martins follows the wounded Lime who, incidentally, had been shot by Martins not Calloway and finds his old friend whimpering on an iron staircase leading up to street level. Lime is too hurt to move and can only say “Bloody fool”8 when Martins bends down to hear him. It’s plain to Martins that Lime will not live: “Then he began to whimper again. I couldn’t bear it any more and I put a bullet through him.”9 Calloway remarks, “We’ll forget that bit”10 and Martins responds “I never shall.”11 The difference is subtle and in the text Greene seems to have Martins putting Lime out of his misery like killing a wounded animal. Indeed, Greene even alludes to this by having Martins reference that Lime’s “Bloody fool” last gasp might have been intended as a final swipe at the writer of cattle-rustlers “who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.”12 The difference being that in Greene’s text Martins is given some volition of his own to respond to Lime whereas in the film, Carol Reed has Orson Welles nod towards Martins to shoot him as if it is Lime’s choice not Martins. In the film the control rests with Lime whereas in the novella, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Harry shot.fw

Placing the Western and text versus film references aside, the ethically interesting element in The Third Man is in Lime’s behaviour and thoughts. The short and reaching attempt at profundity given in response to Martins question as to whether he still believes in God, reveals an internal processing by Lime as to how he justifies his abhorrent actions regarding Penicillin racketeering. Alongside the statement he made about “suckers and the mugs” there is a coherent narrative that he has constructed to enable him to sleep at night. He has built a belief system, which one presumes all con men do in regard to “suckers and the mugs”, in that everyone is free to take advantage of the other and that it is a battle of wits that will win in the end, with the victor being the non-sucker or non-mug. The premise being that they each have the freedom to act in whatever way they see fit and that society’s rules don’t apply. Lime takes such thinking to a new level.

The carnage wrought in Vienna by WWII, with the resultant chaos of zones policed by four different countries, each with their own rules and systems, and an interlinking sewer network that allows easy passage from one to the other, albeit illegally, appears to be the perfect set-up for a black market to thrive.

Sewer entrance.fw

Lime, presumably, witnesses this state of affairs emerging and, being a wheeler and dealer of old, works out how to maximise his advantage. The problem being that he is edged ever onwards by the circumstances and his own greed to make choices that he then has to live with. Faking one’s own death and then continuing to live and run one’s black market business in the same city is not a usual occurrence. The reason for faking the death being that the British police, in particular, in the guise of Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, were ‘on to him’ so that Lime could effectively feel Calloway’s men breathing down his neck and their hands posed to ‘collar’ him around every street corner. The choices Lime had must have considered were to hand himself over, fake his own death, leave the city, or stop all activity. The allure of making ‘easy’ money must have prevented him from leaving or stopping, likewise giving up and owning up would not have sat well within his mind-set. A mind-set that would have rationalised that everyone else is on the ‘make’ so why shouldn’t he, especially if the money was easy to make. This train of thinking, though, has a major obstacle to overcome. People are getting sick and dying due to his ‘trade activities’. Now, Lime isn’t stupid and knows that he can’t simply shrug off such consequences. Instead, he has to rationalise, as he always would have done.

As we have seen, to Lime the lives of his fellow Viennese citizens become reducible to ‘dots’ when seen from far away and endless suffering when regarded close up, which leads him to state “the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils”, when confronted by Martins. Interestingly in this scene, there is a slight difference in the novella text by Greene, as opposed to the film scrip. In the text, Lime has the line “I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do” in-between “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that” and “The dead are happier dead…”13

Holly and Harry.fw

Such thinking demonstrates a belief system that has sought to work through the implications of his actions. However, to take the line that one isn’t hurting their souls when one is in fact bringing about their death is belief system that dictators, serial killers, ancient crusaders, past generals and modern jihadists take. The ‘righteous’ beliefs of anyone should never involve the justification of murder, collateral damage, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, a give-me-enough-men attitude or blithely thinking that their souls will be fine. Other people’s lives are not for anyone else to decide upon. To think otherwise is to be ethically bankrupt, a position that Lime has found himself in and that Calloway wants to imprison him for, whilst Martins is coming to terms with it and Anna is possibly ignoring it.

There is a Sartrean issue here, because it could be argued that Lime accepts his situation as being “condemned to be free”14 and pursues “existence precedes essence.”15 He does this by creating his own essence rather than letting anyone else, or doctrine, impose an alternative essence upon him. Lime, it could be argued, can be seen as the perfect existential antihero, a moral nihilist operating in an amoral environment.

The sewer.fw

This is how Lime could be seen and if we take that line of thinking he then acts to highlight the Sartrean issue that freedom doesn’t necessitate ethics.

As we saw in the last post, freedom, that hard fought for treasure, pursued by Sartre through the quagmires of ontology and phenomenology, has no natural or logical partner in ethics. That one might be free does not mean that one might be ethical. Lime’s behaviour epitomises one who seems to embrace everything about Sartrean thought regarding being condemned to be free, so therefore act accordingly and do whatever you want. And, if we push Sartrean thought a little further, in Lime’s case, we can see that Lime could be the ultimate Sartean antihero. By adopting a belief system, Lime ensures that he can come into the bracket of Being-for-itself because he is positively proving that his consciousness is infinite rather than finite. The sheer infinity of what we might be able to believe in demonstrates our status as Beings-for-themselves as opposed to the brute Being-in-itself which has no consciousness and is thereby finite.


Lime, then, scores pretty highly on the Sartrean model of antihero-ness. The problem is, of course, that by being infinite and free, in a way that Harry Lime appeared to think and behave, ethics becomes lost. And, contrary to simplistic readings of Sartre this is a problem to Sartre. There just is no way on earth that Sartre would have been happy and content with the epitome of his philosophy culminating in a character like Harry Lime. The truth of the matter, though, is that many people have assimilated Sartre’s thoughts in this manner and have been content themselves to arrest their thinking on Sartre at this point of moral nihilism. The difficulty is in finding a way beyond Sartre and his exemplar Harry Lime to catch a glimpse of the promise of ethics that Sartre suggested would be the focus of his work after Being and Nothingness.

The glimpse.fw


  1. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, 119.
  2. Orson Welles attributed addition to Graham Greene’s film script for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.
  3. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, 119.
  4. Additions to Graham Greene’s film script for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.
  5. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, with slight additions for the film script,121.
  6. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, with slight additions and amends for the film script,121.
  7. Addition to Graham Greene’s film script for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.
  8. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, 132.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 121.
  14. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  15. Ibid.

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