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Holly Martins

The Third Man's hapless American hero, looking for his friend in Vienna

Main image of Holly Martins

Holly Martins is the principal character in The Third Man: he appears in virtually every scene. He's played by Joseph Cotten, who was under contract to the film's co-financer David O. Selznick. Cotten had been a stage star on Broadway before beginning a long association with Orson Welles, who cast him in both Citizen Kane (US, 1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (US, 1942).

Conventionally attractive, with considerable physical presence, Cotten often conveyed vigorous and upright American manhood, but there was generally a dark or troubled side to his characters, never more so than in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (US, 1943), in which his smalltown character has a terrible secret. In Ambersons he played a man who, in V. F. Perkins's words, "is an enchanting figure of courtliness but predisposed from the start to defeat and regret". In Kane, as in The Third Man, Cotten's character takes refuge in drink: he cannot entirely hold himself together.

The reunion of Cotten and Welles (who is Harry Lime in The Third Man) was a significant movie event but there were thematic echoes between the films too. In both films Cotten is the devoted friend in the shadow of Welles's charismatic, overpowering character. But whereas in Kane, Cotten's character, Jedediah Leland, repudiates his friend and leaves him to ruin, in The Third Man he's blindly loyal until, forced to confront evidence of Harry's crimes, he swerves to the other extreme and ends up killing his oldest friend. In Kane Jedediah makes a decision; in The Third Man Holly has his mind made up for him.

Holly Martins is, at the start, a figure of fun, a writer of pulp Western novels with an erratic temper, a bit of a fool, liable to fall in love with a woman at the slightest provocation. The running joke in the film (and in Graham Greene's novella) is that Holly mistakes reality for one of his novels: he sees cheap plots and conspiracies everywhere and, in so doing, misses the point entirely. He takes a dislike to Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), suspecting him of smearing Harry's reputation when in fact Calloway's sparing Holly the worst details. Referring to one of his novels, The Lone Rider of Santa Fé, Holly says, with typical bravado: "The lone rider has his best friend shot unlawfully by a sheriff. The story is how this lone rider hunted the sheriff down." In his mind he's the lone rider and Calloway the sheriff.

Holly becomes obsessed by the "third man" who the porter (Paul Hoerbiger) at Harry's apartment block tells him was present when Harry died. Holly begins to tell everyone about his suspicions. He declares at his disastrous lecture on "The Contemporary Novel" that he's working on a new novel called "The Third Man". Again he confuses fiction and reality. The problem is that the porter is now dead, murdered by Harry or one of his henchmen as a direct result of Holly's indiscreet talk.

Holly is a bungler: he may be well-meaning but his good intentions prove fatal. In the latter part of The Third Man Holly is increasingly undermined in the viewer's eyes: the more he finds out the more he seems to act recklessly and without any coherent purpose. Anna (Alida Valli), Harry's girlfriend, remains dedicated to him, dead or alive, whereas Holly in the end is Harry's executioner. The shooting takes place off-screen and it's chilling: no matter that Harry is a murderous racketeer it seems wrong that his best friend should so completely turn on him.

When Anna, at the end of the film, ignores Holly and walks away from him, there's a sense of justice. She punishes him for his betrayal. His good intentions and naivety count for nothing. His wild flights of fancy and his sentimentality, which might be harmless traits in other circumstances, end up seeming like grave moral lapses.

Rob White

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