A Second View: “The Third Man” from Eye Level

November 1, 2015   •   By Martin Zirulnik

THE MOST FAMOUS MOMENT in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is of course Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) delivering his grim pronouncements about the last several centuries’ worth of European history and culture, his casual justification of “warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed.” “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings,” he declares from the drone-like vantage of the Wiener Riesenrad — the giant Ferris wheel that dominates Vienna’s Prater amusement park — as he peers at the moving dots below. It was unexpected, then, to revisit the film on the big screen in its recent 4K digital restoration and notice the extent to which Reed’s Vienna, in precise contrast to Lime’s vision of it, seems built from its human beings outward, even in the context of so much real footage of the city ruined and empty.

On the one hand, the great wheel rises mechanically above a kind of vast memorial — not a memorial to the dead, exactly, but to amusement? to some prewar ideal of Machine Age recreation? — the Russian-occupied zone below transformed, as Graham Greene writes in his novelized treatment of the film, into “great glaciers of snow and ice,” the wheel “revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away, the frost-nipped weeds where the snow was thin.” On the other hand, a second Vienna has begun to appear, its streets “repaired up to the first story,” as Greene continues, so that upon the arrival there of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) the stage is set, if not for an entirely human point of view, then at least for a restricted cinematic one, built and populated “only at eye level,” crowded with canting bodies filmed at close range, but left unrendered vertically.

lime's view

Lime’s view from the Wiener Riesenrad.

A narrow band exists, therefore, for recognizable life in Vienna; and, speaking in strictly visual terms, as long as the fugitive Lime keeps himself outside of this zone, he remains free of its jurisdictions. His evasions are more than a game of disguise or concealment; he keeps entirely to his own axis, a subtle and barely perceptible ploy carried out by the filmmakers at a level of detail and technical precision held in relief, now, by the knowledge that for its theatrical re-release The Third Man has been meticulously restored, treated shot by shot, frame by frame, to provide a cinematic experience as close as possible to that of the film’s first audiences. Take, for instance, the preamble to the climactic chase through Vienna’s sewer system: a setup in the Hoher Markt, the city’s oldest square reduced mostly to shadowy ruins, which surround an improbably luminous Café Marc Aurel. Martins sips coffee and awaits Lime’s appearance. Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) has successfully convinced him of the truth and gravity of Lime’s crimes (a penicillin racket that has left many people, including children, dead or maimed); and Martins has, in turn, agreed to help the police spring a trap for his old friend. A shrewdly edited sequence conveys the scenario without dialogue: waiting in suspense, sentries are tactically positioned so that the police command every possible sightline radiating from the center of the square, spokes in a giant horizontal wheel that renders visible every possible approach. More specifically, Reed alternates between, on the one hand, close-ups of the guards, statuesque bodies, eyes panning from left to right like rudimentary CCTV cameras, and, on the other, still images of the ostensive territory these looks survey: expressionistic glimpses of Vienna’s streets at night, archetypes of the noir cityscape. Rigidly horizon-bound as the closed-circuit eyeballs are, however, they allow Lime, who enters the scene from his characteristic height (perched many levels up on a ruined building) to remain effectively invisible. In blunt contrast, Reed provides Lime’s own view, which, angled downward, pans magisterially across the entire scene, and the audience is meant to understand that while the sentries’ looks are partial, static, limited, fragmentary, etc., Lime comprehends the whole picture.

But his picture is wrong! — or, at least, not quite compatible with the picture that has already been presented. In fact, this famous set piece, which seems to be about nothing more than it is about visual comprehensiveness, displays a remarkable number of gaps and inconsistencies of vision, which are as difficult to spot — even in 4K resolution on the big screen — as they are precise in their implications. For instance, immediately before we are given Lime’s view, Calloway and his sergeant (Bernard Lee) are approached by that unforgettable balloon seller who, a lost wraith from the Prater or some other firebombed recreational zone stumbling into the wrong scene, menaces them until they are forced to purchase a balloon. Why doesn’t Lime see any of this? (Everyone else on set seems to.) Doesn’t the suspense, here, derive specifically from the fact that the transaction is comically conspicuous, that these men are trying to hide but have instead acquired a homing beacon to draw Lime’s eye? Shouldn’t he at least see the magic lantern show, the grotesque oversized shadows that the old man casts against the square’s storefronts as he conducts his business? Shouldn’t he see at least one or two of the lookouts camped out everywhere and only partially concealed?

marc aurel

The balloon seller crosses in front of the Café Marc Aurel.
Lime’s view of the same stretch of road: nothing in
Lime’s view ever quite resembles the view from below.

Instead, looking down at the same place, he sees a different world — a past version of Vienna superimposed on this one, perhaps, as a horse-drawn carriage enters the roundabout (not unlike an odd preindustrial merry-go-round) and another enters from the right of the frame, having just crossed in front of the Café Marc Aurel unheeded by any of the many vigilant eyes it must have crossed at the same time. So incongruous is Lime’s vision of the scene that his actions proceed as though they are, in turn, exempt from its logic. He simply steps right in through the back door of the café. Since the café was directly across the square from him moments before, Lime (unless he can fly) has had to descend from his perch and cover a great deal of territory traversing sightlines without being seen. An impossible feat; so either his entrance to this eye-level interior constitutes what’s known in film editing as a “continuity error” — a substantial one — or, in a more interesting possibility, he has breached the café from another domain altogether. He has dropped from his own extra-cinematic world into this one without the need to obey its rules, except to keep his former promise to Martins: “I will meet you any place, any time.” Indeed, the main feature of Lime’s role as the third man of The Third Man is that, for the most part, he’s not actually in it. (This fact finds support at the production level as well: apparently Orson Welles never showed up on set when he was supposed to, forcing the production team to improvise, putting other actors in disguise or casting shadow-Limes against walls when no real-Lime could be apprehended. In fact, the assistant director himself, Guy Hamilton, plays Lime in his first appearance in the ruins above the square.)

But Lime’s ulterior plot is compromised, of course. For cats, as everyone knows, do not respect any rules or boundaries pertaining to the space–time continuum, nor would they trouble themselves with the technical and metaphysical quandaries such boundaries entail in The Third Man; which is why Harry Lime’s favorite cat — strutting from this world to that and back again with as little regard for the laws of nature as it has for the conventions of continuity editing (there are three cats, not one) — provides Reed with the perfect device to force Lime across the dark threshold into the half-light of Vienna’s horizontal grid. This is one of the film’s most iconic images: a drastically canted shot of Lime half-concealed in a darkened doorway, betrayed by the cat’s meow even before his face is lit for the first time (now nearly two-thirds of the way into the film) from a neighbor’s bedroom window above. Martins attempts to approach him, but is blocked by a passing car; and Lime (just as he will later do in the Hoher Markt) evades contact by way of a continuity break: when the automobile speeds past on its horizontal trajectory, interrupting Martins’s view for a fraction of a second — much too fast for Lime to escape — Lime vanishes, crossing the frame neither to the right nor to the left, rematerializing only as footsteps in the distance and shadows projected on the walls before disappearing again into the sewers below.

2 passes

Vanishing act in two passes.

This editing trick, in which a shot is briefly blocked by a passing object and someone vanishes with supernatural haste, has now become a conventional way to initiate a chase in countless thrillers. But Reed, in this early example, places a special emphasis on the breach of continuity, allowing the technique to strain the film’s realism to the breaking point. In fact, the car passes Lime twice, filmed at two different angles. In the first, we have a head-on view from behind Martins as the car begins to pass in front of Lime, who crouches as though he’s about to run. It seems that his shadowy figure has already vanished even before the pass is complete; but it’s impossible to tell, as an infuriating cut places the camera in a new position, the passing car loops back to pass again, but this time the threshold is more obscure and our curiosity is left at the mercy of the next cut, which of course reveals nothing of the method of Lime’s escape.

The difference between the first and second pass is, in effect, the difference between a magic trick and an editing trick, or, more precisely, between a mechanical effect and a narrative one. The second pass is not so much a redundancy as it is a challenge to the first at the level of technique, one that leaves the audience unsure whether Lime’s retreat is magical — and thus more realistic, a vanishing act that could be carried out on stage with a trap door, mirrors, and other such mechanisms — or whether Lime’s otherworldly stunt is executed at the editing table, a feint of pure cinematic storytelling, a different sort of amusement. (Another production legend lends backing to this distinction: apparently the only way the crew was able to entice Welles out of his hotel room to participate in filming was to promise him a meeting with a famed Austrian magician, who was to teach him a few tricks.)

By the time we get to the Hoher Markt and Lime’s subsequent demise, the cinematic view appears to have won out over the phantasmagoric, the mechanical. Though Lime’s first disappearing act may have been a magic show, there is no doubt that his fatal appearance in the full light of the Café Marc Aurel puts him in the realm of another sort of show altogether. Never is this technical — and technological — distinction so clear as it is in the decisive moment when Calloway convinces Martins that Lime is a criminal, the precondition for his downfall. Calloway begins the presentation of evidence with what he calls a “magic lantern show,” an allusion to pre-cinematic forms of theatrical image projection. But quickly, after entreating Martins to “look here,” his voice fades out, along with the image of the clumsy projecting apparatus over which the sergeant fumbles, to be replaced by what can only be found in a motion picture: a montage, complete with optical effects. The major ethical turn in the film is therefore carried out strictly in the language of film. The mechanics of courtroom argumentation are replaced by the more immediate (and, perhaps, more intimate) visual logic of cinema: a series of shots of evidentiary objects (fingerprints, photographs, notes, etc.) with no dialogue, one dissolving into the next until a perfect superimposition of frames encircles Martins’s eyes within a magnifying glass, answering Calloway’s call for him to look by insisting via optical effect that now, at last, he sees.

martins sees

Martins sees the evidence against Lime.

Here, the new digital restoration — carried out by Deluxe Media on behalf of StudioCanal — does the film justice, as the restoration team intervened modestly to smooth out the opticals in such moments. The graininess of the original film is retained, but corrections were made to small movements and other potentially distracting effects of the laboratory process of making composite images using an optical printer (as was done in Reed’s era) rather than digital effects (as filmmakers do now). Optical printing involves projecting and rephotographing individual picture elements, which means the quality of the final image is compromised; but since original audiences would have been more accustomed to this technology, it would have been less distracting than it is today (and certainly less awkward than Calloway’s magic lantern). Thus, the effect of the sequence, then and now, is the same: the audience experiences Martins’s transition out of the dazzling sphere of Lime’s influence as a refinement of the medium, a movement beyond one obsolete mode of theatrical presentation or another — a disillusionment, to be sure, but one that entails the production of a newer, sleeker form of illusion.

While Lime’s high ground, as it were, is meant to be ironic (the film hints as much early on when the porter at Martins’s hotel [Paul Hörbiger], with a weak grasp of the English language, gestures towards hell above and heaven below), the manner in which he is brought down to the restricted domain of the camera at eye level, to be trapped and destroyed, doesn’t necessarily suggest a better view. Beyond its symbolic resonance, the sewer chase provides a very literal corrective to the bungled Hoher Markt operation: Lime’s movements are now confined more or less to a single story worth of vertical space (except where his fingertips breach the sewer grate in his final, futile ascent), and, in turn, a couple of his pursuer’s eyeballs have enhanced their horizontal pan with a slight vertical tilt to put Lime in range. But his death appears to be less a victory than it is an act of mercy, one which spares the murderer, at the moment he’s caught, from the dismal continuity of the film’s horizontal spaces — precisely what he seems always to have sought. While Lime was able to indulge the fantasy of a view from an alternative Vienna raised beyond Vienna (a death wish perhaps), all the human beings he leaves behind are left to face the one that merely extends beyond the frame, just outside the camera’s line of sight.

Though the dreariness of the finale is somewhat mitigated by the subtle archness of Lime’s death (a kind of capstone to the film’s general tone of dark humor, its half-casual manner of providing lighthearted amusement), this Vienna — the one that exists in the margins of what’s presented on-screen, the one that only just eludes viewing — seems to be a truly miserable and humorless place. This is where Martins shoots and kills his closest friend. This is where he observes Lime’s victims, off-screen figures that we don’t see but that, through a grim metonymic attachment, retain their frightening continuity with the figures we do: nurses, cribs, surgical tools, cotton balls, a worn-out and discarded teddy bear. This is where Lime’s former girlfriend, the playactress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), is afforded no exit when, after receding far into a gapping darkness at the edge of her apartment but arriving at no vanishing point (no chance for a disappearing act), she must return to face the camera and her arrest by the International Patrol.


Anna’s arrest.

Such impressions of a third Vienna, one that belongs neither to Lime nor to the camera, accumulate at the margins of the screen until reaching their clearest expression in the film’s final gesture. As Anna slowly approaches the camera from the sublime depth of the long shot, the cemetery’s trees to her left and right seem to extend infinitely from their horizontal vanishing point, but their branches have been cut short at the top, their vertical extensions dismantled in an obscure visual echo of Lime’s defeat. Martins leans on a wooden cart that appears to have been forgotten on the side of the road in a former century (perhaps the same century that Lime saw superimposed on what was left of the Hoher Markt after World War II), waiting there to haul away the branches that no longer top the trees. When Anna passes him by without a word or a glance and steps out of the movie at the lower right side of the screen, the gesture is final but provides no closure: we are given no assurance that she has made it safely into the wings, for she is far from the theater where she and Martins first met; and so we must assume that she continues her long walk, that the cemetery road beyond the near-infinity of what we see of it exists in perfect continuation of what we don’t, its inconceivable scale functioning not as some grand tribute to the many human bodies that lie buried there along with Lime’s, but functioning instead to extend indefinitely the radius of Martins’s solitude among them.




The author wishes to thank Mark Bonnici, Head of Restoration at Deluxe Media, for discussing the work involved in completing the painstaking frame by frame restoration of The Third Man.


Martin Zirulnik is a doctoral student in the English department at the University of California, Los Angeles.  His research includes 20th-century fiction and film; recent writing is forthcoming in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, and he is currently at work on a study of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.