The Third Man Ending Explained: Fated To Walk Alone

Vienna may be the city of Mozart, Mahler, Strauss, and Beethoven, but it is the music of a lesser-known composer that is most heard on its heavily-touristed streets. Anton Karas was Viennese-born, and his jaunty, sinister zither theme to "The Third Man" is often a strange accompaniment to all the snapshots and selfies, played by buskers and tinkling from music boxes in souvenir shops.

The modern Austrian capital has come a long way from the rubble-strewn, shadow-haunted city that provided such an evocative backdrop when British director Carol Reed and his cast and crew arrived in late 1948 to shoot their seminal tale of post-war black market intrigue and doomed romance. As a massive fan of the film, I was disappointed by how unthreatening and sparkly clean it is nowadays.

That said, if you catch it in the right light with the right set of eyes, you can still feel a little of the atmosphere of Grahame Greene's novella and Reed's masterful film version. The landmark ferris wheel where the film's antagonist, Harry Lime, gives his legendary "cuckoo clock" speech, still slowly turns above the Prater. Many of the old cozy cafes retain their faded Mittel Europa charm with peeling mirrors, threadbare furniture, and tattered wallpaper that looks like it went up around the time Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten were in town. If you're a movie buff, you can take a detour from Stephansplatz to the entryway at Schreyvogelgasse 8 and lurk around in the very doorway where Welles made his famous entrance in the film.

Another location you can visit and still get some strong vibes of "The Third Man" is the Vienna Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof) where Reed signed off with his contentious but absolutely perfect downbeat conclusion.

So What Happens in The Third Man Again?

Holly Martins (Cotten), a penniless writer of pulpy western novels, arrives in the divided city of Vienna on the promise of a job with his old friend Harry Lime (Welles). He's 10 minutes too late — Lime was knocked down by a car outside his apartment building and killed. At the funeral, Martins meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) of the British military police, who had an interest in Lime for his black market activities.

Martins is in no mood to see his friend's name dragged through the mud and sets out to investigate his death, much to the disapproval of Calloway and his well-meaning colleague, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee, best known as M in the James Bond movies). Martins' inquiries lead him to Lime's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), who thinks her boyfriend's death was no accident, and several shady underworld characters who were present at the scene of Lime's unfortunate demise. The mystery deepens with the sighting of a third man carrying Lime's body from the street.

Fed up with Martins meddling, Calloway reveals the true nature of Lime's enterprise, selling watered-down stolen penicillin for a tidy profit, resulting in the injury or death of many innocent victims. After Martins falls in love with Anna and realizes that Lime is still alive, he agrees to help Calloway catch his old friend, on the condition that Anna is allowed to leave the city with him...

Often ranked as one of the greatest British films of all time, Reed's masterpiece matches the elusive tone of Karas's unforgettable zither score, at once good-humored, sorrowful and sinister, casting Cotten's hapless hero against a murky labyrinth of tilted streets and dark passageways, the city's off-kilter otherworldliness emphasized by the incredible expressionistic camera work by Robert Krasker.

The Final Scene

Holly Martins is presented as a foolish American abroad — brash, meddlesome and garrulous, although never less than open and good-natured. It is testament to his naivete and loyalty that he wants to stick by his old friend, even as evidence stacks up against Lime and his nefarious schemes. Martins falls in love with Anna, but there is nothing to suggest groundwork for a great romance, because all they have in common is that they both loved Lime and were taken for granted by the racketeer. Any potential relationship between them is thwarted by Martins' decision to do the right thing and help bring Lime to justice — in Anna's eyes, it is a betrayal.

During the climactic chase through the sewers of Vienna, Lime shoots Paine dead and is wounded by Calloway. Martins, taking up Paine's gun, makes one last act of solidarity with his old friend, killing him rather than leaving him to the authorities. After Lime's real funeral, Martins asks Calloway to drop him off so he can wait for Anna as she walks solemnly away from the graveyard. In that remarkable final shot, we wait for a lifetime as she walks past Martins without even glancing at him.

Both Graham Greene and producer David O. Selznick wanted to send audiences out with a happy ending, but Carol Reed stuck to his guns for this beautifully forlorn denouement (via How Films End). He felt that letting Martins get the girl after everything that went before would have seemed unpleasantly cynical, and he was right. It's the perfect conclusion for both characters. Martins came in with nothing and leaves the story empty-handed, rather than the traditional boy-gets-girl ending. Anna, grieving and still committed to Lime despite everything, is fated to walk alone.