P:O.V. No.2

Closure in The Third Man:
on the dynamics of an unhappy ending

Richard Raskin

Jeezes, couldn't we make a shot where the girl gets together with the fella?
David O. Selznick
The various changes that were made as The Third Man evolved from Graham Greene's original treatment to the final result in Carol Reed's film, have already been described in some detail by Adamson (1984), Moss (1987) and Wapshott (1990), and will not be outlined here once again.

Only one major change will be mentioned: at the conclusion of Greene's treatment, Martins catches up with Anna as she leaves the cemetery. They walk together and are finally seen with her hand through his arm, which inspires the narrator (Calloway) to remark, among other things, that Martins had a way with girls.[1] In stark contrast to this happy ending, Reed's film concludes with a remarkable shot lasting over a minute, with Martins leaning against a wagon in the left foreground as Anna approaches from a great distance, getting progressively closer, and - without so much as a glance in his direction - finally walking past him and out of frame. Martins then lights a cigarette and in exasperation, throws the match to the ground, after which the picture fades to black (Figures 1-10). The strains of Karas's zither music are heard throughout the shot.

The final shot in The Third Man

Figure 1

At 10 seconds
Figure 2

At 0 seconds
Figure 3

At 20 seconds
Figure 4

At 30 seconds
Figure 5

At 40 seconds
Figure 6

At 44 seconds
Figure 7

At 45 seconds
Figure 8

At 50 seconds
Figure 9

At 60 seconds
Figure 10

At 65 seconds: puffing smoke and
tossing the match, just before fade out.

Before the picture was completed, Graham Greene argued against this ending, for two reasons: first, because he believed that The Third Man, which he considered nothing more than an entertainment, was "too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending"; and second, because he was afraid that "few people would wait in their seats during the girl's long walk from the graveside towards Holly, and the others would leave the cinema under the impression that the ending was still going to be as conventional as my suggested ending of boy joining girl."[2]

Carol Reed told Greene that the original ending, with Martins and Anna walking arm in arm from the cemetery immediately after Harry Lime's burial, "would strike the audience [...] as unpleasantly cynical."[3] Reed gave other reasons as well in a later interview, in which he also mentioned producer David O. Selznick's desire for a happy ending:

At one time it was thought that every picture must end with an embrace so that the audience could go out happy, but I don't think that's what it did. A picture should end as it has to. I don't think anything in life ends 'right' [...] In The Third Man, Graham Greene wanted Joseph Cotton to overtake Valli in that car; then the film would finish with the couple walking down the road. I insisted that she pass him by. David Selznick had some money in the film (I think it took care of Cotten and Orson Welles' valet). I must say he was very nice and appreciative about the picture as soon as he saw it, but he said, "Jeezes, couldn't we make a shot where the girl gets together with the fella?" "It was in the original script," I said. "We chucked it out." "I'm not sure. It was a good idea." But I mean, the whole point with the Valli character in that film is that she'd experienced a fatal love - and then along comes this silly American![4]

Once he had seen the film, Greene graciously conceded that Reed had been proved "triumphantly right," and that he (Greene) "had not given enough consideration to the mastery of Reed's direction," nor could he have anticipated the role that Karas's zither music would play in that final scene.

While virtually everyone who writes about The Third Man hails the ending as one of the most mesmerizing in the history of the cinema, those commentators who interpret Anna's walking past Martins at the end generally view it as an expression of the filmmakers' negative judgment of Martins. In other words, the ending is seen by a number of commentators as appropriate and satisfying because it is precisely what Martins deserves! The most extreme interpretation of this kind was proposed by Andrew Sarris (1957):

Martins attends Lime's funeral, and waits by the side of the road to speak to Lime's mistress. In one of the most memorable endings ever filmed, the girl walks deliberately past Martins, into the camera and beyond while Martins lights a cigarette to conceal his discomfiture. Suddenly, all the disquieting elements in this thriller fall into place, and new layers of meaning rise above the surface. Holly Martins has been repudiated by Reed and Greene as well as by Lime's mistress.

[...] With a different final sequence, The Third Man would lose much of its intellectual force.[5]

Sarris then goes on to suggest, absurdly, that Martins' real reason for killing Harry Lime in the sewers was the resentment he felt because Anna had "rudely dismissed" his advances.

Yet, when Martins shoots Lime at the end, he is able to convince himself that he is acting out of the noblest of motives. Martins lacks the self-awareness to realize that his mediocrity conditions his sense of outrage at the evil deeds of a superior human force (op. cit., pp. 11-12).

Having been torn between a personal loyalty to Lime and a moral obligation to help the authorities arrest him, Martins finally allows his social conscience to take precedence over personal considerations, and that - according to Sarris - is what justifies an ending in which Martins is duly punished for his betrayal of Lime: "The point that Reed and Greene make [...] is that moral responsibility is personal rather than social, especially in a world that has gone awry " (p. 12).

Other critics, though adopting a more moderate stance, followed Sarris' lead in viewing the ending as in some sense either deserved by Martins or enhancing Lime's status in our eyes. They include Voigt (1974),[6] Adamson and Stratford (1978),[7] Palmer and Riley (1980)[8] and Moss (1987).[9]

Moss, for example, characterizes Martins as "a clumsy and misguided idealist whose unworldliness has deadly ramifications for other people" (p. 181). It is his meddling and inability to cope with the complexities of a dangerous world, which result in the deaths of three men: the porter, Sergeant Paine and Harry Lime. According to Moss

the movie-makers seem convinced of the ineffectuality of goodness, whose pale, limp passivity is contrasted throughout with the striding vigour of evil, at once cunning and robust [...] Predictably, Anna prefers the memory of Harry to the reality of Martins (pp. 184-185).

Moss's enthusiasm for the sheer artistry of the ending - a "devastatingly bleak, idiosyncratic conclusion" which displays "an aesthetic boldness unparalleled in English language films, the gamble of a remarkable artist" - goes hand in hand with his view that the "last moments of the film are courageously true to the intellectual and emotional logic of the story" (p. 191).

Taking issue with critics such as Sarris "who condemn Martins and champion Lime," Lynette Carpenter (1978)[10] argues that when Martins gets a closer look at Harry's victims in the children's ward, and finally "agrees to sacrifice personal loyalty to social responsibility," this "commitment to help Calloway marks the final stage of a maturing process that begins when he steps off the train in Vienna" (p. 30). For Carpenter, "the film systematically attempts to persuade the audience to accept this decision along with Martins" (p. 27), and "advocates humanity and compassion in the face of increasing pressure to categorize, generalize and dehumanize, a pressure that leads, when unresisted, to totalitarianism" (p. 31).

Sarris's nonsensical claims about Martins' shooting of Lime, are also refuted by Carpenter who points out that "when Lime kills Paine in the sewers, Martins goes after him in a moment of anger; but when Martins kills Lime, he does so out of compassion for Lime's suffering. Thus his final gesture is in keeping with his awakened humanity" (p. 31).

If you believe as I do that Carpenter is right about the implicit value system of the film, and that within the framework of the fiction as Greene and Reed have defined it, Martins does what any decent person would do in his situation, there is still the question of the ending to contend with, since in this context, the ending appears entirely unfair. And if that is the case, then why do we like it?

McFarlane (1993)[11] attempts to account for our willingness to accept the ending, despite the fact that it does not reward Holly's moral victory by bringing him together with Anna, as a Hollywood film would most likely have done. In this connection, McFarlane makes two points: first, as had already been suggested by Driver (1989/90),[12] there may be a more truthful statement about love in this ending than is usually found in more conventional films; and second, "the audience may accept Anna's walking away because of the satisfying moral rightness of the climax in the sewers" (p. 22).

Both of these points may well be valid, but they can at best explain why we accept the ending, not why we find it satisfying. In the remainder of this article, I will try to point out some of the qualities of the ending which may help to account for its appeal. First, however, the final shot will be replaced in its context, beginning with the burial of Harry Lime.

Figure 11

Priest: Anima ejus, et animae omnium
fidelium defunctorum, per misericordiam
Dei requiestcant in pace.
Figure 12

Anna drops a spoonful of earth on the
Figure 13

Figure 14

Figure 15

Figure 16

Calloway (climbing into the jeep):
What time is it? Martins: 2:30.
Figure 17

Figure 18

Calloway: I'll have to step on it
if you're going to catch that plane.
Figure 19

Martins: Calloway, can't you do
something about Anna?
Calloway: I'll do what I can, if she'll let
Figure 20

The camera tracks in for a close shot of
Martins as he turns to look at Anna.
Figure 21a

Anna seen from Martins' p.o.v. at the
start of the shot.
Figure 21b

One second into the shot.
Figure 21c

Two seconds into the shot.
Figure 21d

Three seconds into the shot.
Figure 21e

Four seconds into the shot.
Figure 21f

Five seconds into the shot.
Figure 21g

Six seconds into the shot.
Figure 22

Martins: Wait a minute, let me out.
Calloway: Well there's not much time.
Martins: One can't just leave. Please.
Figure 23

Calloway: Be sensible Martins.
Martins: I haven't got a sensible name,
Figure 24

Martins takes his position, leaning up
against the wagon.
Figure 25

Calloway looks back at Martins, then
drives off.
Figure 26

The beginning of the final shot.

1. interplay of inevitability and surprise

That Anna would never accept Holly Martins as her lover has been made abundantly clear to us in the scene in which Holly shows up drunk at her apartment, late at night, and he declares his love for her.

Holly: Oh, I don't know. I'm just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls... you.
Anna: Me?
Holly: Don't be such a fool. Of course.
Anna: If you'd rang me up and asked me whether you're fair or dark or had a mustache, I wouldn't have known.
Holly: I make comic faces and I'd stand on my head and grin at you between my legs and tell all sorts of jokes... Wouldn't stand a chance, would I? (Tears roll down Anna's cheeks.) You did tell me I ought to find myself a girl.

Earlier in the same scene, Holly tries to interest Anna's cat in playing with him, but the cat jumps off Anna's bed, totally uninterested in Holly, who remarks: "Not very sociable, is he." Anna then replies, "No, he only liked Harry." Although this bit about the cat was added primarily as a way of letting us know some moments later that the man waiting below in the doorway - against whose shoe the cat snuggles - is none other than Harry, it also expresses in a symbolic fashion the hopelessness of Holly's position in relation to Anna's life.

As if all that weren't enough, Holly's prospects for even remaining on civil terms with Anna are dramatically worsened when she realizes, on two occasions, that he has been cooperating with Calloway in setting a trap for Harry. First, at the railroad station, at which time she says to Holly: "Look at yourself in the window - they have a name for faces like that." And later, in the café to which Harry is being lured, when the last words she speaks to Holly are: "Honest, sensible, sober Holly Martins. Holly, what a silly name. You must feel very proud to be a police informer." And that was before Lime's death.

One this basis, we have been fully prepared to understand not only that Martins' love for Anna was utterly hopeless from the start, but also that now, after Harry's death, she would want nothing to do with the man who pulled the trigger.

Furthermore, when Holly replies to Calloway "I haven't got a sensible name" (Figure 17), this serves as a reminder of Anna's final insult to Holly at the café, and helps to reinforce one last time our expectation that Anna will want no part of him.

When she finally walks past Holly, without even glancing in his direction, we perceive her behavior as the fulfilment of an inevitability, the enactment of a necessity, confirming our expectations even more fully than we had imagined possible. (This did not prevent us from hoping, all the time, that somehow she might still accept Holly, though we knew - as he did - that it would never happen.)

At the same time, however, the way in which this outcome is staged, filmed and left uncut is so extraordinary that we are stunned by its originality, even on the tenth or twentieth viewing of the film. Reed's use of an uninterrupted take lasting over a minute, filmed with a stationary camera, and allowing the outcome to unfold in so gradual a manner, with Holly simply standing there as Anna completes her foreseeable trajectory, is unlike any other ending ever filmed. As the shot continues, we keep wondering whether it will actually go on in real time as it had begun, with no cutting, no camera movement, no close shot of Holly, no spoken lines. This is the "æsthetic boldness" and "gamble of a remarkable artist" to which Moss rightly referred.

What we have then in the final 66 seconds of the film is a shot which clinches an inevitable and necessary outcome yet does so in a way that is utterly unexpected. In other words, the conclusion of the story is experienced as the fulfilment of an inevitability, while the cinematic discourse with which the story is concluded takes us by surprise. This unique interplay of inevitability and surprise is just one of the properties of the ending that make it unforgettable.

2. symmetries

As many commentators have pointed out, Harry's two funerals "bookend" the film, establishing a symmetrical relationship between the beginning and end of the story. And as is well known, that kind of symmetry, in which the story comes full circle, returning to its point of departure, is one of the most effective devices for achieving closure.

But other symmetries as well play an important role in that connection. For example, the shot of Anna seen from Holly's point of view as Calloway drives him from the cemetery at the end (Figure 21a-g) has a parallel in a similar shot following Harry's first burial. And even more important is the fact that the shot in Figure 15a-g shows Anna getting progressively smaller on the tree-lined road from the cemetery, as the distance between her and the camera increases. This is the exact opposite of what will happen in the final shot (Figures 1-10), when on the same road, she gradually approaches the camera and progressively fills a larger portion of the screen - the two shots, though of different durations (6 and 66 seconds), standing nevertheless in a symmetrical relationship to one another.

Yet another symmetry is equally important, this time within the final shot: the bilateral symmetry of the picture composition, with the road flanked by trees on both sides, and the treetops and roadsides forming a double apex, at the point of which Anna first appears as a dot in the distance. She will then advance in the center of the picture, veering to the right foreground only when she reaches the camera. Although Holly's position in the foreground left is an asymmetrical element within the picture, the various bilateral symmetries are nevertheless striking, and help to give this shot a memorable look.

3. Center and focus of attention

From the time Anna first appears in the distance until about 40 seconds into the shot when she begins to veer to our right, she occupies the center of the screen and is also the primary focus of our attention, though we occasionally glance over to Holly, to watch him watching and waiting for Anna.

After she walks past him, Holly becomes the sole focus of our attention, and for the remaining 20 seconds of the shot, the picture has no center or rather the center is empty. This displacement of our focus, from center to periphery, and our sense that the center is now irretrievably gone, serves as a closural device, giving us twenty seconds more within which we can get used to the fact that the story has now run its course, that nothing more will happen, and that we must now let go of the fiction.

Giving those final 20 seconds some small measure of content, Reed had Joseph Cotten light a cigarette, then toss the match onto the ground.[13] That gesture in turn serves as the final punctuation - the period or full stop - for the scene and for the film as a whole, which now fades to black.

4. Oppositions

Yet another source of richness within the final scene are the binary oppositions running through it: Holly's immobility is played off against Anna's unstoppable propulsion forward, just as Holly's concern for Anna ("One can't just leave") is played off against Anna's icy indifference toward him.

Within the framework of these oppositions, things are pushed to their outer limit and set in stark relief, strongly profiling Holly and Anna in their final two shot.

5. The falling leaves as metaphor

Throughout the final shot, leaves continue to fall onto the road. For Moss (op. cit., p. 191), this was a "curtain of autumnal leaves [...] creating a last image of the decay that has played such a formidable part in the film's ambiance." Another possibility is to see the falling leaves as a metaphor for sadness[14] and for the ending phase of a life-cycle - in this case, the ending of the relationship between Holly and Anna, and the ending of the film.

6. Music

The zither music was specifically mentioned by Greene as one of the elements in the final shot which made it so successful. It is the only sound heard from the time Holly takes up his position at the wagon, waiting for Anna. When only music is heard for so long a period, that in itself can serve as an increasingly unmistakable signal that the dialogue in the film is over and that the film itself is only moments away from its conclusion. This is yet another closural device, cushioning the moment of imminent separation from the film and helping us to let go of the fiction.

Summary and conclusion

< Returning now to the point of departure in this discussion, I have argued in favor of viewing Holly at the conclusion of the film as a character thoroughly deserving of our admiration. Unlike Sarris and others who, as Carpenter rightly put it, "condemn Martins and champion Lime," I cannot find the outcome in itself as one Martins deserves, and have therefore tried to understand why despite that unjust outcome, the ending of The Third Man is so satisfying.

In attempting to do that, I have suggested that the ending draws its appeal from a number of factors, including: a unique interplay of inevitability and surprise; a number of symmetries enhancing closure and enriching our visual experience of the final shot; changes at the center of the shot and in the focus of our attention; salient binary oppositions; the falling leaves as metaphor; and the zither music.

Virtually all of these aspects of the final scene are the products of Carol Reed's imagination and craftsmanship and owe little to Graham Greene, who opposed the ending on which Reed insisted. Anyone who has looked closely at the ways in which Reed managed the closure of this film, will understand why Michael Winner wrote:

If people tell me: "I want to be a film director," I say, "You don't need to go to film school. Just watch The Third Man 100 times.[15]


Adamson, Judith. Graham Greene and the Cinema. Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1984.

Adamson, Judy and Philip Stratford. "Looking for the Third Man on the Trail in Texas, New York, Hollywood," Encounter (June 1978), pp. 39-46.

Clem. "The Third Man," Variety (7 September 1949).

Carpenter, Lynette. "I Never Knew the Old Vienna: Cold War Politics and The Third Man," Film Criticism (1978), pp. 27-34.

Cook, Christopher. "Hijacking The Third Man," Listener 116, 2991 (18-25 December 1986).

Crosby, John. "The Second Man," Observer (1 June 1969).

Crowther, Bosley. "The Third Man," New York Times (3 February 1950).

Denby, David. "Night World" in Favorite Movies. Critics' Choice, ed. Philip Nobile. New York: Macmillan, 1973, pp. 87-96.

Driver, Paul. "A Third Man Cento," Sight and Sound 59, 1 (Winter 1989/90), pp. 36-41.

Falk, Quentin. Travels in Greeneland. The Cinema of Graham Greene. London & New York: Quartet Books, 1990; orig. pub. 1984.

Gomez, Joseph A. "The Third Man: Capturing the Visual Essence of Literary Conception," Literature/Film Quarterly 2, 4 (Autumn 1974), pp. 334 -340.

Greene, Graham. "Sir Alexander Korda," Sight and Sound 25, 4 (Spring 1956), pp. 214-215.

Greene, Graham. The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. Harmondsworth: Penguin, n.d.

Greene, Graham. The Third Man. London: Faber and Faber, 1988; orig. pub. 1973.

Greene, Graham. The Third Man. New York: Bantam Books, 1962; orig. pub. 1950.

Greene, Graham. Ways of Escape. London: The Bodley Head, 1980.

Lambert, Gavin. "The Third Man," Monthly Film Bulletin 16, 189 (September 1949), p. 159.

Man, Glenn K. S. "The Third Man: Pulp Fiction and Art Film," Literature/Film Quarterly 21, 3 (1993), pp. 171-177.

Manvell, Roger. The Film and the Public. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.

McFarlane, Brian. "The Third Man: Context, Text and Intertextuality," Metro Magazine 92 (Summer 1993), pp. 16-26.

Moss, Robert F. The Films of Carol Reed. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Palmer, James W. and Michael M. Riley. "The Lone Rider in Vienna: Myth and Meaning in The Third Man," Literature/Film Quarterly 8, 1 (1980), pp. 14-21.

Parkinson, David (ed.). Mornings in the Dark. The Graham Greene Film Reader. Manchester: Carcanet, 1993.

Pogue, Leland. "The Third Man" in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1: Films. Chicago: St. James Press, 1984; pp. 891-2.

Samuels, Charles Thomas. Encountering Directors. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.

Sarris, Andrew. "Carol Reed in the Context of His Time," Film Culture 3, 1 (1957), pp. 11-15.

Sarris, Andrew. "First of the Realists. An Analysis of Carol Reed's Work for the Cinema (Part I)," Films and Filming 3, 12 (September 1957), pp. 9-10, 32.

Sarris, Andrew. "The Stylist Goes to Hollywood. An Analysis of Carol Reed's Work for the Cinema (Part II)," Films and Filming 4, 1 (October 1957), pp. 11-12, 30.

Taylor, John Russell (ed.). The Pleasure Dome. Graham Greene: The Collected Film Criticism 1935-1940. London: Secker & Warburg, 1972.

Van Wert, William F. "Narrative Structure in The Third Man," Literature/Film Quarterly 2, 4 (Autumn 1974), pp. 341-346.

Voigt, Michael. "Pictures of Innocence: Sir Carol Reed," Focus on Film 17 (Spring 1974), pp. 17-34.

Wapshott, Nicholas. The Man Between. A Biography of Carol Reed. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990.

Winner, Michael. "Every Shadow Tells a Story," Independent (7 October 1994), p. 24.

Wright, Basil. "A Study of Carol Reed" in The Year's Work in Film 1949, ed. Roger Manvell. London: Longmans, Green, 1950; pp. 11-22.

[1] Graham Greene, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Harmondsworth: Penguin, n.d.), p. 119.

[2] Preface to The Third Man, in Greene's Ways of Escape (London: The Bodley Head, 1980), p. 124. A less complete version of this text is included in 1950 Heinemann and subsequent Penguin editions of The Third Man and The Fallen Idol.

[3] Graham Greene, ibid.

[4] Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974), pp. 169-170.

[5] Andrew Sarris, "The Stylist Goes to Hollywood." Films and Filming 4, 1 (October 1957), p. 11.

[6] "The film's remarkable ending [...] is a clear indication of its attitude. Martins may have made the right decision morally, but it's difficult to feel much affection for him." Michael Voigt, "Pictures of Innocence: Sir Carol Reed," Focus on Film 17 (Spring 1974), p. 28.

[7] "The Anna who walks away leaving Holly behind her is a more valid character than the one in the story who capriciously slips her hand through his arm. She remains faithful to Harry Lime, and his figure, in consequence, becomes larger and more difficult for the audience to contend with." Judy Adamson and Philip Stratford, "Looking for the Third Man on the Trail in Texas, New York, Hollywood," Encounter (June 1978), p. 40.

[8] "Reed and Greene neither dismiss Holly nor exactly pronounce judgment on him. Rather, they achieve a vision that reckons with both his virtues and his vices." James W. Palmer and Michael M. Riley, "The Lone Rider in Vienna: Myth and Meaning in The Third Man," Literature/Film Quarterly 8, 1 (1980), pp. 19-20.

[9] Robert F. Moss, The Films of Carol Reed (London: Macmillan, 1987).

[10] Lynette Carpenter, "I Never Knew the Old Vienna: Cold War Politics and The Third Man," Film Criticism (1978), pp. 27-34.

[11] Brian McFarlane, "The Third Man: Context, Text and Intertextuality," Metro Magazine 92 (Summer 1993), pp. 16-26.

[12] Paul Driver, "A Third Man Cento," Sight and Sound 59, 1 (Winter 1989/90, pp. 36-41.

[13] Joseph Cotten described the filming of the final moments of this shot as follows: "I remained there, as directed, still smoking the cigarette. My eyes followed Valli out of the shot and, anticipating Carol's shout of "Cut," I almost strolled back to my chair to wait for the assistant to announce "One more, please," or for Carol to say, "Print." Nobody uttered a word. The camera kept rolling. The special effects men from their high perches continued to drop toasted autumn leaves from above. I continued to puff on my cigarette, and began to get quite panic-stricken. Was there more to the scene? Had I gone blank? What was Carol waiting for me to do? I took one more puff, then in exasperation threw the cigarette to the ground, at which point Carol shouted through his laughter the word I had been waiting desperately to hear - 'Cut.'" Though Cotten speaks of throwing the cigarette to the ground, he may actually be referring to the match he throws to the ground in exasperation just before the picture fades to black. This text is in the press booklet published when a new 35mm print of The Third Man was released on March 18, 1994. The press booklet is available on the micro jacket for The Third Man at the BFI library.

[14] J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), p. 96.

[15] Michael Winner, "Every shadow tells a story," The Independent (7 October 1994), p. 24.