The Third Man, UK, 1949, Director Carol Reed


Rest assured Hollywood knows how to do funerals.  Holly Martins was a popular guy and there were plenty there to say goodbye.  Holly liked a smoke and a drink.  The cigarettes killed him, lung cancer at 66 years of age.  In company Holly was always the first to offer a cigarette.  I suspect he picked up the habit in Europe.  Maybe it was something he learned from his friend Harry Lime.  You know, Holly Martins could keep a conversation going all night yet always inside Holly somewhere there was a lonely spirit that threatened to leak out of his eyes.  In Hollywood the girls with pity are thin on the ground although the way they are treated we should feel sorry for them, I suppose.  Holly was fortunate.  He settled down with a woman who wanted to care for him.  I doubt if either of them was happy in the way we are supposed to imagine happiness but they shared a pleasure in taking life day by day.  Patricia was so proud of Holly when her husband refused to testify and took the fifth.  Those characters on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee had lousy politics and awful grammar.  What was odd was that Holly Martins did not have a political bone in his body.  After what he saw in Europe, the black market and everything, Holly lost his faith in human nature.   But he was determined not to betray friends and colleagues, he said.  I had to let down a good friend once and never again, he told me.


Holly kept working despite taking the fifth.  He was luckier than most.  It helped that his writing ability was no more than modest.  Before he came to Hollywood he wrote some Western novels.  In those days the American public wanted thin paperbacks.  40,000 words, a few gun fights and a hero that could find himself a girl without saying much more than howdy, and you had your name on a book.   Out here, Holly never did get a screen credit so having his name on anything was not important to him.  Later he went from the movies to TV.  He worked on a TV show, some awful cop drama.  Holly liked talking to the police detective that they had as a consultant.  They could have talked to all of LAPD, and it wouldn’t have helped.  Badge Of Honor was the name of the show, and it stank.   The real detective sergeant that was supposed to help was called Jack Vincennes.  I remember the name because he was murdered, shot in his own kitchen would you believe.  They never did name the killer although Holly had his theories.  LAPD was crooked from top to bottom.


Holly dragged me to the funeral of the detective.  That was also a big turnout.  I remember this line of big policemen with wide jaws and stern faces.  Holly mentioned Harry Lime that day.   All funerals reminded Holly of Harry Lime.   A lot of it is in the book that Holly wrote, of course.  How much of what happened is there, and whether what he wrote was true only Holly will know.  The Cuckoo Clock was the only decent book that Holly ever wrote.  It paid for his house and wedding and helped him find work in Hollywood.  If that had happened to me and if Holly really did kill Harry Lime in a Viennese sewer like Martin Tree does at the end of The Cuckoo Clock then I would feel guilty as well.   I asked Holly about the ending of the book.  I remember the moment, Patricia sitting at his side and with this look on her face that made me realise no one messed with her.   No casting couch for that girl.  Holly talked a lot about Harry Lime, less when Patricia was there, but he never did give me a straight answer to just who it was that killed Lime.  Sometimes I tell myself that it was one of the soldiers.  There were plenty in Vienna back in 1948.

Harry Lime was not a big time crook.  He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with the trash we have out here.  I was not one of those people who found the rough charm of Bugsy Siegel appealing.  If I saw Bugsy, I would walk out and tell the host what I thought of parties that added gangsters as dressing.  Errol Flynn falling for that nonsense I could understand but what Cary Grant and Gary Cooper saw in these thugs was beyond me.   I do not even want to think about Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen and the rest.


All you have to do is read the book and remember that those are not the real names.  Holly mentions four but no doubt there would have been more involved, folk intent on bringing home more than their post-war rations.  Two of the four supplied the penicillin that was sold on the black market.  These were a doctor and this bloke that worked in a hospital.  I presume the doctor helped water down the penicillin.  The nightclub owner and this Baron somebody were two men who were somewhat aggrieved about having income that gave them something in common with ordinary people. The Baron had status and could be relied on to sell the stuff.  The nightclub owner helped Harry Lime keep competitors at bay and shove away complaints from those who wondered why their penicillin only made them more ill.

The Cuckoo Clock makes a lot of the love Martin Tree had for the girl that knew Lime but whatever Holly felt for the Czechoslovakian girl he left it behind in Europe.  Maybe she did leave Holly with wounds.  Patricia could have handled that.  She had a knack for treating the injured.


I have wondered often why Holly felt so loyal to this small time racketeer but then I could never figure out Cary Grant and Coop indulging Bugsy Siegel.   Men like Harry Lime and Bugsy Siegel make people rich and know how to fix favours.  That helps but there is maybe more.  These gangsters enjoy life and do not give a damn about anything.  For the onlookers that provides relief.  I tried and try to avoid criminals but in Hollywood it was difficult.  Listen to gangsters and you are hearing men making promises that people find impossible to resist.  I am not talking about money.  These guys insist life can be nothing but ease and pleasure.  For a while Holly must have believed those promises.  Something led him to make the trip to Vienna when Harry offered Holly a job writing for a medical charity or scam that Lime was supposed to set up.  The Czechoslovakian lady wanted what Harry Lime promised, which is why she fell for the rogue.  And Holly liked to be around someone cheerful.  Holly, though, didn’t belong with such people.  He was a writer, dime novels of 40,000 words perhaps but he still sat down and wrote words.  Holly Martins had a conscience.

I remember the name of the girl.  Holly mentioned her often enough, and the name Anna remains in my brain somehow.  If she was a looker when Holly met her, the woman did not age well.  The girl was an actress in the theatre in Vienna but after Lime was killed she managed to reach Italy.  For a while the Russians wanted to drag her back to Czechoslovakia but Holly negotiated her staying in Austria.  The deal was that Holly would set up Lime in a phoney meeting.  It worked fine but the girl, who wanted nothing to do with what Holly and the British military were doing, never forgave Holly.  I saw Anna in a couple of cheap Italian horror movies that came out a few years ago.  She looked seedy and anything but beautiful.  Maybe that seediness was always there and that was why she loved Harry Lime, a man whose watered down penicillin caused kids to die in overcrowded hospital wards.


Lime may have been a small time operator that Cohen and Siegel would have swallowed in one gulp but he was more than a cynical businessman in a crooked racket.  Lime carried a gun and he would have used it on Holly if that British sergeant had not walked into the cafe where Holly and Lime were supposed to meet.   The same sergeant probably saved the life of Holly Martins a second time.  That happened down in the sewer below Vienna.  Holly went forward to plead with Lime.  The sergeant stepped forward to stop Holly, and Lime shot the sergeant.  Holly felt really bad about the death of the sergeant.  The shame of what happened that night stayed with Holly until the day he died.  Maybe that was why Holly was able to point the gun at the head of Harry Lime and fire the fatal bullet or at least write the final scene where Martin Tree finished the villain Lenny Carter.  I did like the scene, though, that happens after the funeral of Carter.  You should read The Cuckoo Clock.  Tree is standing by a cart and waiting for Carter’s girlfriend to walk away from the graveside.   She just walks straight past Tree and does not say a word or even give Tree a glance.  That was the best scene Holly ever wrote.  I wonder what his wife thought when she read those pages.  I imagine Patricia feeling a little hurt but also proud of the man she married.  Ah, well, rest in peace Holly Martins.


Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.   His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.