Holly Martins a Cowboy? The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)           

          Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) lends itself to several readings.  The film functions as a western, a film noir, and even as a read on modernism.  The protagonist Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, as an archetype of the western genre, a representation of the modern male, and as an archetype of film noir also lends himself to these readings.  Holly does not face a physical or psychological crutch like James Stewart’s character Scottie in Vertigo but a moral crutch.  He must make the decision whether or not to betray his friend Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles.  Though Scottie from Vertigo and Holly from The Third Man deal with their dilemmas differently they share some common mannerisms that are childlike.  This entry will focus on Holly Martin’s character and how he deals with his dilemma while analyzing him as an archetype of the western and film noir genres.

            Holly Martins not only possesses attributes of the western archetype but also other attributes that separate him from the stereotypical male protagonist, in particular how he deals with his dilemma.  Michael Sinowitz’s article Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man: When a Cowboy Comes to Vienna addresses this reading of Holly Martins and challenges it in similar ways I wish to challenge it.  Jane Tompkins, in her article West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns writes “most historians explain the fact that Westerns take place in the West as the result of the culture’s desire to escape” (44-45).  In The Third Man it is not the culture but the characters that truly wish to escape, therefore Vienna becomes this escape.

            The protagonists in the Western genre encounter a similar dilemma that Holly Martin must encounter in The Third Man, the moral qualm of betraying a friend who has gone rogue.  In Anthony Mann’s 1952 western film Bend of the River the central protagonist Glyn McLyntock, played by James Stewart, must decided what to do when his friend reveals himself as a villain.  This motif recurs in countless western films in many variations and has migrated over to the action film.  Yet, unlike western film archetypes, Holly Martins seems very unsure what to do in this situation whereas typical western archetypes make their decision quite frankly.  Even if the western male protagonists seem unsure, they suddenly appear quite sure during the shootout at the end of the film.  Holly Martin does not share this attribute with other western archetypes, he remains unsure, but still kills Holly at the end of the film.  The comparison between Holly Martins and a western archetype fails to consider Holly Martins’ role as an author and not a detective or a cop.  Holly does develop into a mild detective throughout the film but uses his role as an author to his advantage.  The dilemmas of the protagonists are the same but the roles are different; yet, the outcomes remain the same.  Michael says that Holly has the aspirations of a western archetype, but I do not agree with discussing characters’ aspirations but instead differences and comparisons.

            Michael Sinowitz discusses The Third Man in relation to modernism and mentions Holly Martins as a representation of the modern male, which emphasizes the shift in the cinematic representation of men during this period.  In his article he writes that “the fascination with and the aspirations for the artist to become a heroic figure, capable of (re)shaping experience, is connected to the emphasis on style in modernism as well” (410).  Michael mentions Holly’s aspirations to (re) shape experience, which illustrates how Holly handles the moral dilemma he finds himself in.  The scene where Holly visit’s the children hospital provides ample reason for him to want to stop Harry and determine the outcome of the film.  The artist then becomes the hero with the power to reshape the experience of the film.  Holly’s blank facial expression in the scene after the hospital shows his stunned reaction at the irresponsible and villainous acts of his once friend Harry. 

The Third Man (1949)

He tells Calloway (an officer trying to convince Holly to act against Harry) that he has won and will help them in their plot against Harry.  Even though Holly becomes a decoy in this plot he still kills Harry and determines the outcome of the film.  The idea of an artist or writer determining the outcome of the film and becoming the hero shows the filmmakers attempt to produce a modern take on a classic tradition. 

            The representation of male moral dilemma may not have changed in The Third Man but the way the protagonist encounters it has changed because of Holly’s occupation as a writer and as Harry’s friend.  He handles the betrayal of Harry with a more sensitive and childlike approach.  Calloway must continually try to convince Holly to help trap his friend Harry.  Holly toys with Calloway with sarcastic one liners that seem very childlike, such as the scene in Calloway’s office where Calloway tells Holly of the recent activity surrounding penicillin (the illegal diluting and distribution of it) in Vienna and Harry Lime’s involvement.  The scene also features a direct reference to cowboys and the western. 


             In the same way James Stewart’s character Scottie in Vertigo challenged the representation of male dilemma, Joseph Cotten’s character in The Third Man does the same.  Both characters possess a childlike quality that resonates throughout both films.  Holly shares attributes with well established archetypes but challenges them by following a more unconventional route to heroism. He must transition from a writer to a reluctant hero at the climax of the film.

-Emmanuel Roberts



Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s an Carol Reed’s The Third Man: When a Cowboy Comes to Vienna.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405-33. Print.
Tompkins, Jane P. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

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