The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) has little time for the childish delusions that its characters or its audience may hold on to. When Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a writer of simplistic and romantic westerns, arrives in post-war Vienna, his perceptions are almost immediately shattered as he learns of the death of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Besides being the inciting incident of the film, this event serves as an example of things to come. Holly may believe himself to be on the right path with an acute understanding of the way that Vienna works, but in truth he is an ignorant stranger in a place that he does not, and is unwilling to understand. But what distinguishes The Third Man is that it seeks to have its audience initially identify with Holly and share his sentiments only to shatter them later. For the American author, Vienna is a simple place filled with equally simple people. The police are useless and bumbling, the city is romantic, and he is the only one that can get to the bottom of the mystery of his friend’s death. But nothing is as simple as Holly would like it to be, and even as evidence accrues to the contrary he still stays his ignorant course until he is forced to face the world that he has been treading over and thus ignoring. The Third Man does not fill its characters or locale with romance, as it instead chooses to present the realities of post-war Europe to a character and an audience that do not wish to see them.
As Holly crisscrosses Vienna looking for evidence concerning the death of Harry Lime, Vienna becomes as much of a character as any of those that are delivering dialogue. The Second World War is still fresh in the minds of everyone in the film except for Holly, and even though he finds himself surrounded by living testaments to the recent horrors, he still cannot bring himself to identify with them. He never fully understands Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and her devotion to Harry, and in the end he still incorrectly believes that they will be romantically involved. For him, Anna is as simple as the characters he writes in his cheap novels. Even as she again and again demonstrates that he is much more complex than Holly gives her credit for, the American author still maintains his belief that he knows her and knows what she wants. Until Holly comes to understand the events that shaped those around him he cannot understand them, but he never fully reaches this level of comprehension. Holly is not so much stubborn as he is childishly ignorant. The world is black and white to him, and he believes that understanding it is just as simple.
Holly’s misperceptions extend to the Vienna law enforcement as well. Becoming quickly abrasive and ignorant towards Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), Holly concludes that they are useless to him and proceeds to undercut them at every turn. Even though Calloway repeatedly calmly tells him of the crimes committed by Harry, Holly continues to maintain that his beliefs are correct despite evidence to the contrary. Keeping with his outdated views of the world, Holly still views his relationship with his presumably deceased friend as it was when they were children. This is not to say that Holly is completely ignorant, as his stubborn refusal to believe that Harry’s death was an accident leads to the revelation that he isn’t actually dead. But this truth is not revealed by way of clever sleuthing by Holly, but rather by a slight miscalculation on that part of Harry. Holly does not shed his outdated notions of the world until he is forced to come face-to-face with the consequences of Harry’s crimes. But even this event cannot change how he views Anna, as Holly’s perception of her stays the same throughout the duration of the film.
Holly’s lack of vision extends from his lack of understanding of the impact of the Second World War. Holly is never said to have been a veteran, or to have had any real personal contact with the War as it was going on. He is not derided for this though, but the film is sure to establish that its main character does not fully grasp the impact of the recent history of the place that he now finds himself in. Holly writes books set it the previous century, in a world that no longer exists. His view of Vienna is equally dated, as he chooses to focus on the arts initially, even as he walks among the ruins of the city. His attempted strong-arming of the local criminals is equally ignorant. “This isn’t Santa Fe. I’m not a Sheriff and you aren’t a cowboy,” states Calloway in a warning to Holly about his actions. In the end, Holly’s actions lead to him chasing his friend through the sewers, and ultimately he is forced to shoot and kill Harry. But even this event does not fully jostle Holly out of his romantic outlook. Still believing that may be Anna will have him, the film concludes with Holly standing alone as Anna walks past him without even bothering to cast a glance in his direction.
The Third Man does not seek to maintain an outdated view of the world. Holly is the only one in the film that does not understand the way that the world works, and the film attempts to change his perspective at every turn. Holly’s ignorance is shown to cause him to be unable to relate both to the people and the place that surrounds him. This disconnect hinders him, as he misjudges who he is and also what everyone else’s intentions are. The only characters in the film that know the score are the ones that Holly views as standing opposed to him. The police, though sometimes slow and slaves to protocol, are nonetheless effective and correct in almost every instance as opposed to Holly. Vienna is no longer the romantic city of old; instead, it is a war-scarred labyrinth of conflict that will not soon forget the tragedies that have befallen them. The Third Man is not hopeful for the future or nostalgic for the past. Instead, it is tired, but also understanding, of the its present as it understands the full implications of what has befallen it in the past.