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The Third Man: Breaking Down A Classic Thriller

It is is a classic mystery thriller and acclaimed cinema masterpiece. This break-down will examine the plot elements and character development of the movie to illustrate thriller screenwriting techniques.

Graham Greene’s script based on his novella, the outstanding performances, the stark cinematography, and the iconic zither score create a tense atmosphere in which the protagonist investigates the death of his friend, only to end up in a moral dilemma. This break-down will examine the plot elements and character development of The Third Man to illustrate thriller screenwriting techniques.

The Third Man (1949)

Director: Carol Reed 

Writer: Graham Greene (novella & screenplay)

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard 

Logline: The broke writer Holly Martins investigates the mysterious death of his friend, Harry Lime, in postwar Vienna, but uncovering the uncomfortable truth threatens to entangle him in shadowy black market dealings.

Check out: Logline: The Most Important Thirty Words You’ll Write

The Third Man: Plot Break-Down

The classic thriller The Third Man features suspense as a crucial characteristic, contrasted with curiosity and surprise. Together with the protagonist Holly Martins, the audience has no clue about the circumstances of Harry Lime’s death, but care and want to find out. The case takes on a whole new form when it turns out – plot twist – Harry Limes is alive and has faked his own death.

The plot of The Third Man consists of the common mystery-thriller element of an investigation, revolving around the questions of who has done what and why? In the words of screenwriting mentor Blake Snyder, it’s a Whydunit plot with the three key ingredients of a detective, a secret, and a dark turn. Before we dive into these, we’ll go over the story beats of The Third Man.

Opening Image:

We saw a snapshot of the hero before their journey and change. Holly Martins, “happy as a lark and without a cent”, arrives on the train in Vienna. He’s surprised that his friend, Harry Lime, isn’t there to pick him up.

Holly Martins will side with Harry Lime and lead the audience to believe the policemen are the bad guys.

Setup:

The opening and the narrator’s voice set the scene. Post-WWII, the English, the Russians, the Americans and the French occupy the four zones of Vienna. An international police force controls the center. Holly Martins arrives in pursuit of a job offer from his old friend Harry Lime, yet he’s just in time for Lime’s funeral.

It becomes Holly’s immediate goal to learn more about Lime’s death because his instinct is to do right by his friend. He’s very reluctant to change his point of view. From the opening, we know that death may very well await “amateurs” who get involved in the black market, so unknown to him, the stakes are high. 

Theme Stated:

At Harry Lime’s funeral, Holly Martins has his first encounter with British police major Calloway and a woman who takes no note of him. Anna Schmidt, as he later learns, was Harry’s lover. The two characters stand for morality and loyalty and embody the choice Holly Martins will face before he can learn his life lesson.

Inciting Incident:

Over drinks, Calloway tells Holly Martins that his friend Harry Lime was involved in racketeering and is a murderer. Martins is forced to see Harry in a new light, and his reaction is to instantly side with his friend as he tries to hit the policeman for the accusation. He vows to prove Calloway wrong about Harry Limes.

Learn more about inciting incidents: The Inciting Incident: Definition and Case Studies

Debate:

The British police put Holly up for the night and urge him to take the plane out of Vienna the next day. Despite the warnings of the police, Holly considers staying as several opportunities present itself: sergeant Paine is a fan of his books and introduces him to Crabbin, who invites Holly to give a literary lecture in a few days. He also receives a phone call by baron Kurtz, who mentions he’s a friend of Harry Lime.   

Break Into 2:

Holly accepts the call and agrees to meet Kurtz. His investigation has begun, but he’s still reluctant to even consider that he might be wrong about his friend. As he leaves, he reiterates to Paine he will take on the “sheriff”, Calloway, since Holly is convinced the British police are pinning a crime on a dead man.

B Story:

Kurtz relates his version of events. Holly asks about the woman at the funeral, Anna Schmidt. Kurtz says not to see her, so of course Holly goes to meet her at the theater. Anna is a classic love interest B story character – with the slight twist that she’s Harry’s lover before Holly becomes interested in her. She will push him towards real change later on.

The character of Anna Schmidt will push Holly Martins towards a real change.

Fun And Games:

The bulk of the second act is dedicated to Holly’s investigation. As he uncovers more information, he becomes deeper entangled in everything. Anna urges him to stay away from the police, yet agrees to see Harry’s porter with him, whose tale of Harry’s death directly contradicts Kurtz. Harry was accidentally run over by his own driver, Popescu, who then carried Harry to the curb with baron Kurtz. Shortly after, Dr. Winkel, Harry’s doctor, arrived on the scene. The porter speaks of a mysterious third man who helped carry the body.

This titular “third man” literally fulfills the promise of the premise as it’s the “hook” of the story: who’s the third man? As it turns out, this elusive character is someone else for different people, and the movie brilliantly plays with triangular relationships and juxtaposed characters on screen.

Holly talks to Popescu about the porter’s version, which eventually leads to the porter being killed before he can relay more information to Holly, who is now under suspicion for killing the porter himself. After escaping two thugs, Holly manages to convince Calloway from the British police that Harry was murdered. Calloway presents Holly with the evidence of Harry’s racketeering scheme, an illegal penicillin operation. 

Midpoint:

Devastated by the truth about his friend Harry Lime, Holly Martins agrees to leave for America. He says goodbye to Anna, who still loves Harry despite everything. Thanks to chance and Anna’s cat, Holly runs into a mysterious character in the street. One of the greatest plot twists of all times reveals: Harry Lime is alive!

The entire script of The Third Man revolves around Harry Lime, but it’s not until the midpoint that he makes an iconic entrance in a major plot twist.

Bad guys close in:

Harry runs from Holly and uses the sewers to escape. Holly goes back to Calloway and they dig up Harry’s grave. Inside his coffin, they find Joseph Harbin, who was involved in the racketeering but became a police informant. Even though the investigation is making headway, Holly Martins has to realize his friend is indeed a murderer.

All Is Lost:

During the famous Ferris wheel scene, Harry talks openly and shows no remorse. He doesn’t care about killing people for his profits and has even betrayed his lover Anna to the Russians after providing her with a forged passport because it was in his interest. Harry first threatens Holly, then offers to cut him in on his dealings. Holly’s investigation seems over: not only is Harry guilty, he isn’t even Holly’s friend anymore.

During the ride in the Ferris wheel, Harry Lime reveals his true character.

Dark Night Of The Soul:

Holly tells Calloway where Harry is hiding, but since Harry is protected in the Russian sector, the British police can’t get to him. They could snatch him up in the international zone, but would need Holly Martins as a lure. He declines: “Don’t ask me to tie the rope.”

Break Into 3:

Holly’s “aha!” moment comes in the form of Anna’s forged passport. Still at the police station, Holly learns the Russians will deport her. He realizes he can help and asks Calloway, “What price would you pay?”

Finale:

The British police put Anna on a train, yet she spots Holly at the station and knows he’s collaborating to catch Harry Lime. She confronts Holly, rips up her passport and convinces him to not betray his friend like that. Holly seems to have a change of heart and tells Calloway to get him passage out of Vienna. Calloway makes a stop at the children’s hospital where he shows Martins the consequences of Harry Lime’s penicillin scheme. Holly then agrees to lure Lime in.

Anna shows up at the café in the international zone and warns Harry Lime just as he shows up. A wild police chase through the sewers begins where Harry Lime kills officer Paine. Holly catches up with the wounded Harry, who gives him the nod to mercy-kill him.

In the end, Holly Martins breaks the rules and kills Harry Lime himself.

Final Image:

At Harry’s real funeral, Anna again takes no note of Holly Martins. Calloway offers to drive him to the airport, but Holly chooses to wait for Anna instead, missing his plane, yet she passes by without looking at him.

Harry never could have had Anna, even when he decided to help her.

Thriller Screenwriting Takeaways

The Three Essential Ingredients

As we’ve hinted at earlier, The Third Man is a classic mystery thriller with three essential ingredients:

  • The Detective: Although the detective can also just be the viewer, The Third Man has a great detective in the character of Holly Martins. He’s wholly unprepared, yet deeply committed to the investigation. He’s of course not a real investigator and came to Vienna for completely different reasons, yet when he learns of his friends’ death and accusations on his character, he wants to uncover the truth and redeem Harry Lime.
  • The Secret: When the case begins, we don’t see it coming what the secret will be. The whole plot unravels with the third man himself. The truth illuminates the darker side of humanity. Harry is stepping over dead bodies to get ahead, and he wants Holly at his side.
  • The Dark Turn: Holly is so deeply entangled, he becomes the only one who can get to Harry Lime. His investigation sought to redeem his friend but uncovers a case within a case. He must choose between morality and loyalty and in the end breaks the rules when he kills Harry Lime himself.

Character Debate: External And Internal

The Third Man features a case within a case, which is a popular but not necessary mystery element. It’s noteworthy here because it coincides with the shift from the external to the internal: once the first case (Harry’s death) reveals the second case (his faked death to get away with racketeering and murdering), Holly doesn’t move on to investigate the second case, he just accepts all the evidence.

Instead, from the moment he knows the truth about Harry Lime, his investigation becomes an ethical or philosophical one: what is the right thing to do? The external examination of circumstances becomes an internal examination of character. Holly’s moral dilemma doesn’t allow him to simply choose between good or evil, everything comes at a price.

It shows the dark turn: Holly is so deeply involved, he is compromised and must step over a line he wouldn’t have crossed previously in order to solve things. The case has deeply affected him, which is why we as an audience also care about it.

The Up And Down In Act II

The second act is where the chase happens, which in the case of The Third Man is the investigation of Holly Martins up to the point of the plot twist. Depending on how you set it up, your hero is either on an upward or downward path with various ups and downs. But by the midpoint, they come to a false victory or a false defeat. Then you raise the stakes and your hero begins their opposite trajectory where things seem to get better or worse. Either way, they will hit rock bottom and arrive at their darkest hour before the resolution in the third act. 

Mystery Thriller Screenwriting Checklist

  • Three key ingredients: A detective, a secret and a dark turn.
  • Suspense: Keep the audience hooked with an unpredictable script, feeding the viewer’s curiosity and surprise, stoking hope and anxiety.
  • Tension: Tighten things by threatening your protagonist and raising the stakes for them at every step.
  • Characters: In order to commit to the story, it’s important that the audience understands what motivates the characters.
  • The chase: The path of your second act, the chase or the investigation, leads to a reversal at the midpoint where you raise the stakes and initiate the slow shift from external to internal journey.

Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer and storyteller. He publishes creative fiction in English and German and assists other writers with the development of plot and characters to shape their manuscripts into compelling stories.

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