Themes in Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’

Graham Greene’s novella and screenplay of Carol Reed’s film noir adaptation of ‘The Third Man’ illustrate characteristics of post-World War II Central Europe in different ways. Perhaps this is a given; there were tools available to Reed via the screen that Greene could not put into words, such as the atmospheric soundtrack and the incredible use of lighting. Despite this, the novella gets across the nit and grit of late 1940s occupied Vienna, through the narration of British Major Calloway, highlighting the social cynicism and perpetual angst present in the atmosphere. Both versions portray images of the sporadic international diplomacy between the four occupiers, as well as the inner workings of black market economics, through a gripping plotline focusing on Holly Martins (Rollo in the novella) and his search for the truth behind the apparent death of an old school friend Harry Lime – superbly played by Orson Welles in Reed’s 1949 adaptation.

Post-WWII Occupation

The story of ‘The Third Man’ relies upon the disconcerting structure of everyday life in Vienna, influenced heavily by her occupation by the British, Americans, French and Russians. While the plotline contains its own dramatic tools, the humorous diplomatic atmosphere provided by the four-way struggle for power gives ‘The Third Man’ a unique setting. Greene writes how Lime, who has fled underground due to fear of capture by the police for black market activity, is able to use the differences in legal rights and cooperation, specifically between the Russians and the other three, to evade capture and prolong his liberty. It is in hiding that Martins, arriving penniless form America with the promise of well-paid work, finds Lime after some persistent detective work.

Occupied Vienna
Occupied Vienna

Greene also writes a clever metaphor into the plotline, upon the arrest by the international patrol of Lime’s lover Anna Schmidt. The patrol is in fact simply an alliance of policemen from all four powers, and thus faces constant struggles for influence and conflict of paradigm. None of the four policemen can understand all the other three, and they all have varying social attitudes. The Russian refuses to take his eyes off Schmidt whilst she changes to leave, revealing a distrusting and almost paranoid character. The American refuses to leave Schmidt in the room with such an untrustworthy Russian, and so stands awkwardly turned away; Greene comments somewhat comically on American chivalry and sense of duty. The Frenchman, untroubled by much that does not affect him, leans against the doorframe, watching the situation with a lit cigarette and a smirk. And finally, the Brit, refusing to impose on Schmidt’s privacy, stands in the corridor wondering what to do next. The passage, not converted directly onto the screen production, is a fantastically satirical portrayal of the anarchic nature of post-WWII diplomacy in Europe, as mutual distrust and intolerance intensified between the once Allied powers.

Black Market Economics

On an internal level, ‘The Third Man’ provides an interesting insight into post-WWII demand and supply in damaged Central Europe. Unaware of the severity of the situation when he arrives, Martins learns that the black market is flourishing in Vienna, to fill the huge gap left in supply of many goods. Lime was involved in a ‘huge racket’ according to Major Calloway, along with a group of friends – Kurtz, Cooler (Popescu in the film), Dr Winkler and Harbin. The police, at least the British police, are not too bothered by black market deals on some produce; after all, as Calloway puts it, the dealers were just supplying materials and goods at an unregulated price, with little but financial harm done.

The difference with Lime’s case, which becomes a significant factor in a rift that develops between him and Martins, was that Lime was partaking in the sale of penicillin, which was available to the Viennese only via the military hospitals, and to Lime through his contact Harbin. Lime and co would dilute the penicillin with coloured water to make it go further, not only decreasing the effectiveness of the medicine, but also causing incredibly detrimental side-effects. Martins is emotionally blackmailed into helping the police capture his old friend Lime by Major Calloway, who shows Martins the effects of the ruined drug on children with meningitis; primarily, distinct physical deformations. Greene here pulls together a moving narrative of personal friendship with the hard and selfish atmosphere of trade in post-WWII Central Europe.


Separate to the more serious themes of politics and socio-economics, Green’s plotline is relatively humorous and enigmatic. The most light-hearted strand concerns a Mr Crabbin, who mistakes Martins – a writer of ‘cheap Westerns’ – for a better-established author. Crabbin, a senior figure in the Vienna branch of the British Cultural Relations Society (BCRS), politely forces Martins into a presentation and seminar on the contemporary novel, a topic which Martins, ironically, has little interest in or knowledge of. Crabbin saves Martins, or perhaps the BCRS as Martins’ attention is somewhat displaced, from embarrassment as the audience fires opinion on Joyce, Woolf and Du Maurier.

There is then the clever structure of both the novella and the film, which begins and ends with a funeral for Harry Lime. The literary device of repetition adds to Martins’ sense of isolation and insecurity concerning his old friend. He finds some peace in Schmidt, but her love-influenced loyalty to Lime becomes a distinct problem for Martins who, perhaps because of his American ‘duty-obsessed’ character, is determined to do the right thing. Or perhaps the problem is Martins’ lack of loyalty to Lime.


In contrast to Martins’ moral inclinations, Lime is portrayed as selfish and manipulative. During an iconic scene in the cab of a Ferris wheel, Martins confronts Lime, who expresses no remorse for the death and destruction his commercial activities have caused, referencing only the profit he can make. In an attempt to justify his anti-social, cavalier, and ‘ambitious’ profession, Lime gives a little speech (present in Greene’s screenplay but not his novella, and actually added by Orson Welles himself as a script footnote):

Like the fella says, 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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

The cuckoo clock is in fact a German creation, but one grasps Lime’s point.


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