Film

How to Make an Entrance #10: Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’


There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps reintroduce readers to some classic cinema friends.

Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)

An American writer comes to post-WWII Vienna, Austria at the request of an old college pal who has promised a job, only to discover that his friend has been killed by a reckless truck driver as he crossed the street. After poking his nose around this corrupt, shattered city, the American smells a rat — and boy, does he find one. The title of Carol Reed’s classic film noir refers to the mystery at the heart of the story: was there an unidentified witness at the scene of the fatal accident? And if so, what is he hiding? Well, it turns out there is a third man, but audiences probably weren’t expecting it to be the dead guy himself. With a smirk as smug as they come, Harry Lime is revealed to be alive and Welles, and suddenly The Third Man has taken quite the turn.

Up to this point in the story, Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) has been wading through a twisted underworld of obstruction and lies. His attempts to discover the truth have led him in circles, but by now he has become disillusioned with what he thought he would find in Vienna. He has been asked to leave the city by the British police, nearly framed for a different murder, chased by a vigilante mob, and has discovered that his friend, Harry Lime, apparently had black market dealings that involved selling diluted penicillin to military hospitals, the results of which included patient deaths. This world is nothing like the romantic American western novels he writes; it’s a place devoid of morality.

Nevertheless, Holly is beginning to see the truth — to see straight. The Third Man is notorious for its use of Dutch angles, but note the level composition that starts out the clip above. After a visit with Harry’s ‘former’ girlfriend, Holly has made up his mind to leave Vienna, and if he is not at peace with the situation, he at least is no longer reeling. That is about to change. The cut to a shadowy doorway immediately disorients with a skewed perspective suggesting that perhaps the world is still more crooked than the American realizes.

The shot depicts a cat licking a concealed figure’s shoes; something is afoot. The director cloaks the doorway in darkness, implying that the person within feels more comfortable unexposed. At this point, however, Holly is used to deceit, and is not impressed. He believes he has a grasp on things, and so remains shot from a flat angle. Still, there’s something intriguing going on here, and he moves closer to get a better look, calling for the spy to reveal himself. Reed was now faced with the challenge of getting audiences to identify the enigmatic character before hearing his name (giving them the satisfaction of solving a mystery), despite them having never seen a photo or heard a description of who they were supposed to identify. Enter, the cat — a clever device that hints at Harry’s ambiguous loyalties, as well as his come-and-go nature. A closer view of the feline instantly clues in savvy viewers; it had left Anna’s apartment mere moments before just Holly did, and “only liked Harry.”

Before his face is even unmasked, we know exactly who stands there watching his old friend, but Reed isn’t done. A light from the window above illuminates the calm, cool, collected face of Orson Welles. There is no question that this infamous actor/director is the infamous Harry Lime. A wonderful push in tells us everything we need to know about the character: he may reside in the seedy Vienna underworld, be wanted by the police, and traverse the sewers like a rat, but he is still enterprising, still aloof, still arrogant — and a chilling, playful smile (especially after all we now know about his nefarious deeds) sends Holly spiraling once again.

Reed returns Holly to those infamous, uncomfortable angles as he staggers in pursuit of his friend (and the truth) with an unsettling closeup, followed by two slanted shots as a car nearly hits the stunned writer — perhaps a callback to the earlier ‘accident.’ Harry Lime has come back from the dead, and Holly’s grasp on reality has been shifted. Though this appearance lasts only mere seconds, it fills in a great many blanks about the opportunism and amorality at play in the city of Vienna not long after the ravages of war. A romantic becomes even more disillusioned, an already mysterious plot thickens, and a scoundrel elicits a tiny bit of admiration.

That’s how to make an entrance.

* For more articles in this series, click here

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