When it’s on: Tuesday, 22 December (11.00 pm)
Scheduled to mark one hundred years since Orson Welles bounded onto Planet Earth (though he was in fact a May child), it’s always refreshing to catch up with The Third Man again. This has to be a strong contender for my favourite film of all time, an exquisite treat to get to see it in its restored form in the cinema this year and a title I revisit regularly. Despite the fact Welles is in it so little, the artwork and enduring images from the film feature him prominently, and in many ways it was a perfect role for him – enigmatic, complicated, and allowing him lots of time off from the shoot. I think it’s just wonderful, from the astonishing black and white photography in post-war Vienna, to the unique Anton Karas score and its dense plotting that never feels forced, indeed it’s a miracle of economical film making from the peerless Carol Reed. I blame this one for getting me hooked into classic cinema in the first place – yes, in my eyes it’s that good.
A few months ago, I wrote a retrospective on The Third Man for Multitude of Movies, and the editors have been kind enough to allow me to use the article again here. If you’ve never read the magazine or visited their excellent website, you are encouraged to stop what you’re doing and head over there right away. In the meantime, here’s 2,000 words on why the film is essential…
The Third Man is one of the best films of all time. Its genius lies in the fact that not only does it hit all the right notes artistically but it’s also very entertaining. There are no bum notes, and the 104 minutes it occupies fly by. In researching this, I’ve read various books and articles, and re-watched The Third Man several times, including a visit to Home in Manchester to see the glorious 4K restoration on the big screen. It still dazzles, just as much as it did when I first came across it, aged 16, ready to have my mind opened to classic cinema and unwittingly catching one of its highlights. Writing these words, the melancholic stylings of Anton Karas’s lonely zither are playing in my head, and on Spotify. I can’t ever imagine being bored of The Third Man.
Karas seems as good a place as any to start. The film’s score is one of the elements that makes it unique. At a time when releases were soundtracked by an orchestra as a matter of course, the decision to use a single zither for The Third Man was an inspired gamble that paid off. Its director, Carol Reed, chanced upon Karas when he’d been employed to supply background music for a welcome party to the production crew in Vienna. Reed was haunted by the sound and tracked down the little musician, recording hours of material. Determined to find space for it in the film, Reed used his zither footage initially to accompany the rough edits of the film, realisation dawning that it was the perfect musical background. A reluctant and homesick Karas was persuaded to travel to England and record what would become the full score. The idiosyncratic music became a massive hit, Karas’s title track ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ turning into a bestseller among record buyers. It prompted the Austrian to embark on tours of Britain and America, and earned him enough of a windfall to pay for his Vienna bar, appropriately named Der Dritte Mann, the showpiece being Karas playing the Harry Lime Theme to awestruck patrons.
The Third Man is ostensibly a thriller, based on real-life black market racketeering in impoverished, post-war Vienna. It was written by Graham Greene, who had produced the screenplay for Reed’s previous film, The Fallen Idol, and was dispatched to Vienna by the head of London Films, Alexander Korda, to come up with a new story. Greene had already come up with the hook, that of a dead man inexplicably seen alive and well, and now applied it to a tale set in the Austrian capital. Wandering the streets with Korda’s assistant, Elizabeth Montagu, Greene was struck by the state of Vienna, ‘bombed about a bit’, jagged ruins of buildings, also the way it was managed by representatives of the four victorious powers from World War Two. Amidst the ensuing confusion, there was little wonder that criminal activity thrived, desperate people scratching out a survival by any means possible, and a meeting with The Times correspondent, Peter Smollett, introduced Greene to the victims of illegal antibiotic usage, a hospital filled with children who were dying from taking it.
The story came together, telling of an amoral character who took advantage of the poverty and city under divided rule to smuggle diluted medicine to the people. In The Third Man, military officials from Britain, France, the USA and USSR do their best to maintain control, despite the lack of mutual understanding. Vienna lies shattered, grand examples of its former glamour now faded, other buildings bombed into rubble, whilst the people remain passive onlookers, pinched and prematurely aged faces looking on as the action takes place around them. It’s the perfect environment for Harry Lime to operate in, living in the Russian sector to evade his British pursuers and using the extensive sewer system beneath Vienna to move around. When he ‘dies’, knocked over by a car, it seems the case against him is closed and he can continue his trade from the shadows, an elusive ghost who can never be caught because he no longer officially exists. But he makes one mistake, when he invites his childhood friend, Holly Martins, to travel over and work with him.
In the film, Martins is played by Joseph Cotten, a major American star who was loaned to the production by the Selznick Releasing Organisation. The Third Man was made by a collaboration of Korda and David O Selznick, who worked together to distribute it to audiences in Britain and America. The latter supplied investment, talent, and also the lengthy interference of Selznick himself. A notorious dabbler in films in which he was involved, Selznick had already earned for himself the bitter enmity of Alfred Hitchcock. The British director had been contracted to him during the forties and grew increasingly sickened by the endless string of memos issued that attempted to overrule and control him. Selznick tried the same strategy with Korda, a worthy rival who was every bit as domineering. The to and fro between the pair would go on to dog the entire production. It was Korda, a Hungarian émigré now established as a key figure in the British film industry, who came up with the idea of a film set in Vienna, seeing the creative potential of a yarn set in the defeated city that was split into four zones. Yet Selznick was equally involved, for example encouraging what became the film’s ending, Anna’s refusal to finish up with Martins because her love for Harry is too powerful and ultimately destructive. It’s moments like these that make The Third Man such a poignant experience. Anna (Aida Valli) is Harry’s former girlfriend. He sells her out to the Russians as a Czech citizen carrying false papers that he had previously made for her, yet the extent to which he’s stolen her heart makes her unfailingly loyal to him. Even when it’s clearly established that Holly has fallen for her and makes a deal to get her smuggled out of the country by the British, she refuses, preferring to face her own ruin rather than betray Harry. In the closing scene, after Holly and Anna have attended Harry’s real funeral, he waits for her, only to watch Anna walk defiantly past him and into a ruined future.
The majority of The Third Man follows Holly’s efforts to investigate the circumstances of Harry’s ‘death’. That he’s unqualified for the assignment is never in much doubt. Cotten’s character is a writer of pulp fiction, a ‘scribbler with too much drink inside him’, falling foul of the authorities, most often the exasperated Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his dogged Sergeant, Paine (Bernard Lee). Calloway has been trying to catch up with Harry for some time and places little faith in Holly’s attempts to clear his friend’s name, but steadily the American turns up some unusual clues. Meetings with Harry’s friends produce inconsistencies about his final moments. A chat with the porter of Harry’s building reveals that an extra person turned up to help move his body after it had been hit by the car, which turns the search into a hunt for the identity of this ‘third man’, who of course turns out to be Harry himself. Cotten plays Holly as a self-pitying drunk, filled with bad memories and ruminating on personal failings. His character was based on Greene, himself bullied during his years at boarding school and scarred by the experience.
As Holly padfoots the streets, he takes in the full spectacle of Vienna’s ruined splendour in much the same way as Greene did. Extensive shooting took place in the city, though more footage was filmed in Surrey’s Shepperton Studios than is apparent. All the same, there’s little getting away from Vienna’s shattered beauty as it appears in the film, indeed the location is more or less a character in its own right, a wrecked, once thriving metropolis ‘with its easy charm’ that is the sublime backdrop for the black and white photography. Once beautiful buildings, many of which still survive in the film, now project long and eerie shadows, and those shadows contain its citizens, rifling through bins and scrabbling for succour. Reed manipulated Vienna to get the ambience just right, carefully choosing shots that would contain some evocative Gothic structure in the background and soaking the streets prior to filming in order to lend it a cold, wintry sheen. Thousands of feet of film depicting the Viennese were taken, depicting the people peering in baleful curiousity, showing the stark reality of life in this place.
At Shepperton, the sewers were recreated and filmed for the scenes featuring Harry Lime running for his life through the labyrinthine passages. These were then spliced with footage of the actual sewers to make the effect appear seamless. Orson Welles, who portrayed Harry in probably his most famous acting role, refused to work in the real thing on health grounds, leaving the production with no choice but to reproduce them. The extent of Welles’s involvement in The Third Man has always been mythologised and distorted, fans of the auteur going with the suggestion that he scripted and indeed directed all his own scenes. In reality, Welles was in the cast as part of a contract with Korda, which was initially signed to fund a number of directorial efforts but by 1949 had turned sour. Welles believed he’d been messed around with and became a problem for the production, being chased around Italy largely on expenses that were met by the studio before he was finally tracked down and dragged to Vienna. The level of Welles’s chicanery was such that much of his performance was produced by other members of the crew. That isn’t his shadow being chased down the streets by Holly. Those aren’t his fingers reaching forlornly through the sewer grid.
His main contribution was the scene in which Harry and Holly finally meet at the big wheel. It’s one of cinema’s iconic moments, bookended by the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, which Welles ad-libbed from an 1885 lecture by James McNeill Whistler. But the nervous energy Harry displays in this scene had little to do with keeping in character and was in fact a product of Welles’s worries about playing alongside the more accomplished actor, Cotten. The pair had a long association, stretching back to their Mercury Theatre days, and Welles knew full well how talented his collaborator was.
For all that, Welles’s glorified cameo undeniably stole the movie. His face features in all The Third Man’s artwork, despite the little time during which he actually appears in the picture. Perhaps it’s the case of an actor perfectly complementing his role, and what a role it is. Lime’s a villain, more or less psychopathic, but he’s also charming and charismatic, and it’s easy to see why Anna would fall for him so hard. Welles turned out to be ideally cast, with his ironic smile and sense of humour, and there’s no surprise that in the wake of The Third Man, the spin-off radio series followed the adventures of Harry rather than any of the other characters. By all accounts, Welles had great fun reprising his role for the wireless, writing a number of episodes as well as delivering lines and, along the way, transforming the character into something of a rogueish hero.
Many great films only become recognised further down the line, long after their initial release. One thinks of Vertigo, locked away for decades before it was re-evaluated and deemed a masterpiece. Not so with The Third Man, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to be one of the biggest box office hits of the year. Critics fell over themselves to praise the filming, the cast, and especially Carol Reed, the director who overcame the battles between Korda and Selznick, the wiles of Orson Welles, the complaints from Joseph Cotton as the production ran beyond its scheduled limit. Reed had a vision for what The Third Man should be, and realised it. We can all enjoy the results.
The Third Man: *****