The Third Man – Early Anti-American Cold War Propaganda

The Orson-Welles starring, Alexander Korda produced, Carol Reed directed, and Graham Greene screenwritten film, ‘The Third Man’ (1949) is regarded as one of the best espionage films of all time. In short however, it is also likely in retrospect to be a piece of anti-American propaganda. (Suggestion: Listen to the nifty theme music below while you read the blog.)

The story centers around two Americans: Holly Martins, a naive writer who comes to spy-riddled post-war Vienna, Austria in search of a paying job, offered by his long-time friend Harry Lime. As Martins quickly learns from authorities, Lime is a loathsome black marketeer who has died just prior to Martins’ arrival in Vienna. Henceforth a tale of betrayal plays out between the Western and Soviet partitions of Vienna, with Lime always at the center of the drama.

Most notably, Lime is on the run from the police authorities due to a criminal racket involving the profitable dilution of scarce supplies of penicillin, used to treat cases of gangrene and meningitis; and in particular has led to horrible medical outcomes for never-seen offscreen children in a hospital. All this misery is caused simply by Lime’s psychopathic quest to make a post-war profit. The British military police officer, Calloway, makes no secret of the moral urgency in apprehending Lime.

Myriad critics have examined Lime’s character from the lens of clinical psychopathy or similar personality disorders – noted even by Robert Hare, developer of the Hare-PCL psychopathy inventory (Hare 2011). Indeed, Lime’s smug smile, disregard and manipulation of those who care about him, musings on the profitability of murder, and other nefarious acts portray a character nobody could (or should) love.

Curiously, as noted by film critic and Professor – Jonah Raskin, ‘The Third Man’ is emblematic of ‘Orson Welles’ subversive genius’, in that his brilliant portrayal of Lime was the first explicitly negative portrayal of an American in post-war film (Raskin 2013). Allegedly, this role was originally to go to the British actor Sir Noel Coward but the film’s producer, Sir Alexander Korda, specifically sought out Orson Welles for the role. However, the true story behind ‘The Third Man’ is actually a tale of betrayal of the West by Western agents, potentially in allegiance to Russia and who may have harbored anti-American views.

There are many connections to the post-war propaganda apparatus in ‘The Third Man’. Even the character Crabbin, who offers the down on his luck Martins a job in the face of Lime’s apparent demise, introduces himself to Martins as in “Cultural re-education Section Propaganda” (Greene 1948). This bit of detail in the film is the only apparent mention of that word, but government financed propaganda agents, many of whom are suspiciously tied to Russia, and others directly so — are at the core of the movie’s production.

In short, these included: Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay and worked for the notorious double agent Kim Philby in MI6 during WW2. By the time Greene went to work with Alexander Korda in his film production company in the 1940’s, Korda had already been knighted for his pre-war propaganda services to Britain (much of which occurred in Hollywood). Korda’s film studio was called a “clearing-house for British intelligence” by his British Security Coordination (BSC) contemporary H. Montgomery Hyde (Hyde 1982). (Even Noel Coward was himself an asset of the BSC and worked with the ‘Z Organization’ that financed Korda’s studio. Coward had at one time even recruited the known Russian spy Otto Katz (who had been influential in the Communist penetration of Hollywood) to work for coordinated BSC efforts.)

Beyond ex-British spies, Korda also employed proven Russian spies connected to the Cambridge Five like Moura Budberg, who was his personal assistant and selected at least some of his scripts in the 1930’s and 1940’s (Tweedie & Day 2015). Most notably perhaps, the uncredited H.P. Smolka, also known as Henry Smollett, who worked in the Ministry of Information as “Head of Soviet Relations”, was in fact a Soviet double agent who had been recruited into the spy services, likely by Kim Philby in 1939 (Foges 2016). Smolka (aka Smollett) played a critical role in painting a ‘prettified’ image of Stalin’s Russia to the the British people, and in this case was a very useful propaganda asset.

Since at least 1944, Korda’s associations with Welles brought him under the scrutiny of the FBI, when Welles and Korda were allegedly going to film a version of ‘Crime and Punishment’ in Russia. Notably, Korda and Welles shared antifascist views and had a mutual history of making antifascist productions. Welles had been under FBI scrutiny at least since 1941, when he directed and starred in ‘Citizen Kane’, seen to be a pro-Communist smear of William Randolph Hearst, an anti-Communist and pro-capitalist leader (and effectively also a propagandist by his ownership of many newspapers). Beyond this, by 1949, Welles had been for at least 8 years been mentored by the high-level Russian agent Louis Dolivet – who had married Beatrice Straight, sister of Michael Straight (American influence agent closely connected to the Cambridge Five spy ring. Dolivet would later produce and bankroll much of Welles’ film ‘Mr. Arkadin’ which was derived from concepts and characters introduced in ‘The Third Man’).

Graham Greene was seen by many to espouse anti-American views including in the 1955 book ‘The Quiet American’, and due to his one-time membership in the Communist Party, was denied entry to the USA by the FBI in 1952 (Roiphe 2003, Spy Culture 2016).

Based on these many connections to known propagandists and spies, often those connected to Communist or Soviet causes, and the fact that the concept for ‘The Third Man’ actually came from the deceitful actions of H.P. Smolka and Kim Philby, as opposed to any sort of American actor, there is a clear angle of anti-American propaganda which is implicit in this film — beyond just Greene’s potentially consistent motivations. The film in this sense creates an image of Americans as psychopathic capitalists (or alternatively naive idealists). In the post war world in which the Western propaganda apparatus turned its sights from the Nazis to the Communists / Soviets, this film may represent an early repositioning of the American capitalist as the new enemy in Soviet-friendly propaganda. It does not necessarily portray the Russians as favorable (or unfavorable) characters, but it does introduce moral ambiguity as to the role of Americans in the post-war world. Orson Welles and Alexander Korda had a history of creating antifascist propaganda and Welles would throughout his career continue to equate US intelligence agencies with Nazis in the promotion of conspiracy theories (see ‘Sirhan Sirhan’ or ‘RFK Must Die’ – (Gear 2015) and parallel other Russian disinformation efforts (Hotchkiss 2017)).

Ultimately, Harry Lime’s famous line from the film has come to define the Cold War, and perhaps can tell us a lot about Russia’s current efforts and intentions.

Holly, I’d like to cut you in, old man. There’s nobody left in Vienna I can really trust, and we’ve always done everything together. When you make up your mind, send me a message – I’ll meet you any place, any time, and when we do meet old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police. Remember that, won’t ya? Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”


Foges, P. 14 January 2016. My Spy: The story of H.P. Smolka, Soviet spy and inspiration for “The Third Man.”. Lapham’s Quarterly.

Gear, M. 20 February 2015. Orson Welles and the Death of Sirhan Sirhan: Part I: The Conspirators. Bright Lights Film Journal.

Orson Welles and the Death of Sirhan Sirhan: Part I: The Conspirators

Greene, G. 1948. The Third Man. (Movie Script.)

Hare, R. 2011. ‘Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us’. Guilford Press.

Hotchkiss, M.B. 2017. Russian Active Measures and September 11, 2001: Nostradamus Themed Disinformation?. International Journal of Cyber Warfare and Terrorism (IJCWT). 7(1), pp.25-41.

Hyde, H.M. 1982. Secret Intelligence Agent: British Espionage in America and the Creation of the OSS. St. Martin’s Press.

Raskin, J. 15 October 2013. Orson Welles’ Subversive Genius: ‘The Third Man’, Film Noir and the Cold War. PopMatters (Film Blog).

Roiphe, K. 26 February 2003. The Wily American: A look at the new Graham Greene movie shows how anti-Americanism has changed over the years. Slate Magazine (Online).

Tweedie, N and Day, P. 28 November 2002. Baroness warned MI-5 about Blunt in 1951. The Telegraph.

Spy Culture. 23 May 2016. Graham Greene’s FBI File. Spy Culture (Blog).

Graham Greene’s FBI File