U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"The world doesn’t make heroes"

This is the third post in a series of movie profiles at USIH to support the Film Noir Foundation. Please see the first post by Ben Alpers for more information.

Harry Lime profits off the death of children in war-ravaged Vienna. He betrays his girlfriend who loves him dearly to the Russians. And when his best friend from childhood pays him a visit, he considers killing him. He is most certainly not a hero. Lime says as much to his friend from America, Holly Martins: “the world doesn’t make heroes, Holly.”


Harry Lime entered film history in Carol Reed’s 1949 British film, The Third Man. He is played by Orson Welles in a relatively brief performance. Welles gets to deliver some great lines (see above), and lead the audience through one of the most memorable chase scenes, running through, across, above, and around the enormous, dimly lit, shallow water of the Vienna sewer system. The film was made from a Graham Greene script and produced by Hungarian Alexander Korda and American David O. Selznick. The cast included Welles’s friend Joseph Cotton in the role of the naive American who writes Westerns with heroic themes for, we might assume, equally gullible readers. In a supporting role as an British military police officer was British actor Trevor Howard, who gave a performance that was pitch-perfect cynical–his character believed in law just not justice. Shot in black and white by Robert Krasker who used shadows and the rubble of postwar Vienna to great effect, the film had a score that featured Anton Karas on the zither, not quite the most menacing sounding instrument. But then, the movie plays a bit with contrasts, these were the dusky early days of the cold war, after all.

The film’s premise is pretty simple: Holly Martins bumbles his way to Vienna at the invitation of his criminal friend Harry Lime. Almost as soon as he arrives in the war ravaged city, Martins gets wrapped up in a police investigation into Harry’s black market business of selling watered-down penicillin at an enormous profit (70 pounds a bottle). At first, Martins is incredulous that his old chum could be such a crook, but after Major Calloway (the British mp) reveals a good deal of evidence and Holly spends some time with his conscience and Lime, he realizes that the only option he has is to set-up his friend–to be, in the parlance of the time, an informer. The film nears its end with a memorable scene captured in the screen shot above.

The Third Man was well-received by critics, film festivals, and audiences. According to one site dedicated to its honor, critics were nearly unanimous in their praise. Nearly. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times offered a review that, while quite positive overall, included a paragraph that when read in the context of postwar thought hints at why film noir remains intellectually significant. Crowther wrote:

“The simple fact is that “The Third Man,” for all the awesome hoopla it has received, is essentially a first-rate contrivance in the way of melodrama—and that’s all. It isn’t a penetrating study of any European problem of the day (except that it skirts around black-markets and the sinister anomalies of “zones”). It doesn’t present any “message.” It hasn’t a point of view. It is just a bang-up melodrama, designed to excite and entertain. In the light of the buzz about it, this is something we feel you should know. Once it is understood clearly, there is no need for further asides.”

As a point of contrast, across town at Time, Inc., James Agee wrote in 1946 of three crime dramas he had seen recently, declaring that they were “much better to watch than the bracing, informative, constructive films which are the only kind…progressives would allow, if they were given half a chance.”

In these two snippets we get a sense for what film noir placed at stake in a struggle for ideas. The battle was between the children of light and the children of darkness.

Crowther was not a prude or clueless as much as simply liberal. He wrote for a middle-class, middle-of-the-road audience who, in the early postwar period, had begun to demand films that were not stock Hollywood productions, especially silly dramas with ridiculously happy endings. Indeed, American moviegoers had made films such as The Bicycle Thief a minor hit and art house cinema, cine-clubs, and foreign films legitimate forms of moviegoing.

However, as Crowther intimated, there were different ways to imagine “serious” entertainment. Message films, such as Crossfire, Pinky, The Best Years of Our Lives, and A Gentleman’s Agreement, all had story-lines far that did not shy away from controversy but that, in the end, did offer a sense of redemption. The war had changed the world and it had changed Hollywood–as Crowther said in an essay about postwar Hollywood, “It is hard to imagine such directors as Capra, Wyler, Huston, or Kanin going back to Hollywood [after service in the war] to make ‘rootless, dehumanized’ films.” People wanted realism but not, Crowther consistently argued, hopelessness. Movies in the postwar would ask questions, but the difference between liberal, message pictures and film noir boiled down to the answers: The Third Man didn’t provide any answers.

In this sense, while Crowther appreciated Reed’s craft, Greene’s script, and the cast’s acting, he was ultimately unmoved by the fact that the film used a destroyed city as a backdrop for a “conventional” crime drama.

And yet, when Holly Martins demands to know what is “at the bottom” of the police Major’s incessant search for his friend, Calloway replies in deadpan: “death. Death is at the bottom of everything, Mr. Martin.” How would one resolve that insight in an hour and forty minutes?

You can’t, and the impossibility of simple resolution echoed the stinging admonition from Reinhold Niebuhr who gave a series of lectures at Standford University and produced a book in 1944 essay entitled, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Niebuhr attempted to explain the horrors of fascism and the world wars by suggesting that “the democratic world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury which it avowed. Civilization [the children of light] refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities. It…spoke glibly of an international conscience; but the children of darkness meanwhile skillfully set nation against nation….Moral cynicism had a provisional advantage over moral sentimentality.”

It is not surprising that many critics at the time and since viewed the character of Holly Martins as a stand-in for general American naivete–I could imagine Niebuhr seeing it that way too. But seeing this film in light of Rumsfeld, Cheney, the war on terror, and Abu Ghraib, I propose that in a contemporary sequel to The Third Man our Holly Martins might have internalized the old world cynicism he saw in Vienna and have little problem reciting the little speech that Harry Lime used to sum up his cynical philosophy:

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed–but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.

And farewell to any liberal pretense of American innocence.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Like David said, great post, Ray!

    A few fun related facts:

    1) It’s worth noting that at the time that The Third Man appeared, Hollywood was about to stop making social problem films like Crossfire, Pinky, The Best Years of Our Lives, and A Gentleman’s Agreement. Noir is fascinating in part because its critiques of American society continued even as the social problem film began to disappear from the screen.

    2) Bosley Crowther’s career famously came to an end when his liberalism struck another limit in 1967. He was appalled by Bonnie and Clyde and started a kind of campaign against the film, which younger critics (and audiences) understood as a landmark film. Crowther’s bitter opposition to the film suggested to the Times that its chief movie critic had grown utterly out of touch with what was happening in cinema, and he was eased out of his post at the paper.

    3) Both Korda and Greene had been active in the British intelligent agency MI6 during the war. There is some speculation that Greene based Harry Lime on Kim Philby, with whom Greene had worked in MI6.

    4) David O. Selznick was infamous for interfering in his productions. But in the case of The Third Man, his interference improved the film in one important way. Greene wanted the film to have the happy ending that his novella had, with Holly and Anna ending up together. Reed, on the other hand, wanted to avoid a happy ending. Selznick sided with Reed, and the film concludes on the famous final shot of Valli walking past Cotten (a shot that’s beautifully–and ironically–echoed in the final shot of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye….but now I’m veering off topic).

  2. Thanks to both David and Ben for their comments.

    You might not know it from the stuff I’ve written on this blog, but in my first turn as a publishing historian I wrote on American movie culture. In my Freedom to Offend about New York City’s movie culture, Crowther played a central role. So I am familiar with Crowther’s decline and fall, though unlike Mark Harris, my story about Crowther’s encounter with Bonnie and Clyde is not about Crowther’s utter befuddlement. His biggest problem with Bonnie and Clyde was not the violence as much as the pleasure audiences appeared to derive from it.

    The Times critic was perhaps the strongest advocate for freedom of the screen among any film critic in American history. Crowther was a champion in the single most important case–involving the Italian film The Miracle–and he defended filmmakers as diverse as Bergman and Shirley Clarke.

    However, he achilles heel was his optimistic liberalism. He couldn’t tolerate films that seemed to him to offer no redeeming insight into the human condition. He famously denounced a 1964 movie called Lady in a Cage because it echoed the kind of nihilistic violence he saw at the center of the notorious Kitty Genovese case from that same period. In other words, when Crowther sat in the dark he wanted something tangible to appear from with in it, not just more darkness. To me, he was an example of the kind sentimentality that Niebuhr criticized, broadly, when he took aim at mid-century American liberals.

  3. What did Crowther think of Stanley Kramer, Ray? What I’ve read of Crowder–and what you write about him–makes him sound like a very similar kind cinematic liberal. Though, to be honest, I may be getting that from Mark Harris, too.

  4. Ben, absolutely, Pauline Kael regularly railed against both Kramer and Crowther as mushy liberals.

    An aside: Crowther knew he was ending his time at the Times well before the Bonnie and Clyde fiasco. He had gone on vacation a year before B&C to give the Times a chance to test a few other critics. Among those who got the chance (and failed) were Stanley Kauffmann. There were some fairly funny comments in letters and memos to Crowther about Kauffmann’s very brief stint. The appointment of Renata Adler shortly after Crowther exchange over B&C was a surprise to everyone, and she didn’t last very long either.

  5. I guess this is stating the obvious, but The Third Man already has an American whose cynicism has led him to recite Harry Lime’s speech: Harry Lime. Martins and Lime are, of course, old friends from before the war and there seems to be a presumption (at first, at least), that they are cut from the same cloth, so to speak. If Martins is a stand-in for American naivete, what’s Lime?

    On one level, it appears that Lime has been changed by the war, and by Europe, that his is a story of an American becoming corrupted by the old world. But Calloway is old world and cynical, and his cynicism isn’t like Lime’s – and neither is his moral sense. By the end, it turns out that Martins and Calloway are more similar to each other than either are to Lime. The fact that Lime’s associates are all – with the possible exception of Harbin, who may be American – central or eastern European suggests that a bigger contrast set up here might be between England/the U.S. and the continent.

    At the same time, there’s some evidence that Lime has long been involved in shady dealings. In the conversation on the Ferris wheel that finally reveals the gulf that stands between Martins and Lime, Lime talks about how he’s always offered Martins a “cut” in what he’s been involved in, and they both apparently have some history with gambling. And Lime’s use of the words “the suckers and the mugs” sounds peculiarly American. When Lime starts abstracting the people below into dots, and then muses on how much money Martins would be willing to take “for every dot that stopped…free of income tax, old man” that the monstrousness of his impulse to make a quick buck becomes clear.

    Does Lime represent something American or the perversion of something American? The film leaves open the question of whether or not someone can change, or whether character is something stable, but which is revealed in different ways depending on time and context. Martins, who initially seems to think that Lime was involved in a more conventional – and to him, acceptable – racket, is overcome by the revelation of what his friend was really into. But Anna, who has heard the same evidence from Calloway, accepts the facts but to the end she still holds on to her belief that “a person doesn’t change because you find out more.”

  6. Good point Andrew. It is funny how Lime is portrayed in the script–he is never called “the American” but Martins is. Maybe Greene thought that only someone as naive and gullible as Martins should be called the American. Martins is certainly a caricature–he writes westerns, falls in love too easily, is too idealistic, thinks people should be brought to justice…

    I wonder if Martins had taken on a more heroic role in the movie–like actually confronting Lime in some meaningful “serious” way–if Crowther would have approved of the “message” the movie had. I suspect the answer is yes.

  7. I believe that in Greene’s (at the time unpublished) novella version of The Third Man, which he wrote before the screenplay, both Holly (called “Rollo” in the novella) and Lime are English (Wikipedia confirms this, fwiw).

    Welles was able to spin off the Lime character for a series of British-produced radio shows, called “The Adventures of Harry Lime” (British title) or “The Lives of Harry Lime” (U.S. title). Made in 1951 and ’52, these were in effect prequels to The Third Man in which Lime is a (less sinister) international con artist. They’re apparently in the public domain, as they’re available for download on the internet archive. I listened to one of these years ago and I remember it as being a pretty good radio adventure yarn (not surprising given Welles’s talents in the medium), but taking place in a world apart from the “Greeneland” of the movie.

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