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The Third Man

The Third Man(1949)

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"Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies," wrote Roger Ebert in his essay series "The Great Movies." The Third Man remains one of the most beloved of movies of all time, a crisp, clever, witty, yet serious international thriller, with a dramatic ambiguity and a satirical edge. It was a success in America and a worldwide hit. It won the Palm D'Or at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, the 1950 BAFTA for "Best British Film," and the 1951 Oscar for Robert Krasker's dynamic cinematography. In 1999, it was chosen a BFI poll as the best British film of all time.

The Third Man was the second of three collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene (after The Fallen Idol) and Reed matches the sardonic wit of Greene's screenplay with a rolling pace that always seems to be racing ahead of its fumbling hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). A cynical American writer of pulp western novels, Holly arrives in Vienna to meet up with his best friend, Harry Lime, only to be told that Harry has been killed in an accident... maybe. Conflicting stories send him on his own investigation and searching for the mysterious "third man" who was supposedly there when Harry died. Along the way he meets Harry's lover (Alida Valli) and a British officer (Trevor Howard) who tells Holly that his best friend was a criminal who crippled and killed countless children with the bad penicillin sold by Harry, and asks for Holly's help when it turns out Harry may not be dead after all...

The idea for setting a thriller in the bombed-out ruins of Vienna came from producer Alexander Korda, who imagined the film as comic thriller in the vein of Carol Reed's "Night Train to Munich," with a European setting and an international cast, including American stars for the all-important US market. Korda pitched the idea to Grahame Greene, who already had an opening line just waiting for a story: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground , so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand." He found the central elements of the story – Vienna's underground sewer system, the black market in illegal and diluted penicillin, and of course the complex and confusing political rivalry – on a trip to soak up the atmosphere.

Greene's method was to first write it out as a story ("For me it is impossible to write a film play without first writing a story," he explained) and then, with input from co-producer David Selznick, rework and refine it in the scriptwriting process with director Carol Reed. Curiously, the downbeat cast of the finale was Selznick's idea and Greene only reluctantly agreed after Reed sided with Selznick. On the other hand, Selznick wanted to change the title; Night in Vienna was one of his brainstorms.

Joseph Cotten was not the first choice for Holly Martins – Selznick wanted either Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart in the role – but once he cast Cotten (a Selznick contract player, as was co-star Alida Valli) was cast, Reed knew who he wanted for the pivotal role of the amoral Harry Lime: Orson Welles. The two actors were, of course, long time friends and collaborators, and the casting has interesting echoes of their roles in Citizen Kane, where they portrayed best friends who split over a matter of conscience. Reed described the now-famous story of offering the role over dinner with a copy of the treatment in his hand: "I said, 'Look, the script's not ready yet, but I'm sure you'll like it even though you don't come in until halfway through.' 'I'd much rather come in two-thirds of the way through,' he replied."

After fighting with Selznick over the casting (he wanted Noel Coward as Lime), Reed got his way, but getting Welles to commit was more difficult. Welles was in Italy shooting "Othello" and he needed the money for the production, but he led Korda's brother, Vincent, on a merry chase across Europe before signing the contract. Even as shooting began, there was worry that Welles would not arrive in time, and reportedly Reed told Trevor Howard, who was cast as the British Major Calloway, that he should be ready to take the role of Lime if Orson didn't show.

Welles did show, making one of the greatest and most memorable screen entrances in film history as Harry Lime. As Holly walks down a dark Vienna street, a cat nestles up against a man silently observing in the shadows of a doorway. An upstairs window lights up and the light spills across the street, suddenly revealing the figure: Orson Welles, who flashes an impish smile and scurries away, casting a long shadow across the alley walls as he runs off. The revelation was in Greene's script but the marvelous touch with the cat was Reed's brainstorm.

His entrance was a full hour into the film, yet Lime dominates the film. Welles referred to the role as "a star part," which he elaborated in an interview with Peter Bognanovich: "What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle is really a vehicle. All you have to do is ride." Welles does more than just ride. He makes the part his own in every way, turning a charming heavy into a mesmerizing sociopath whose poisonous charm is matched by his icy arrogance and mercenary ruthlessness. Most famously, he rewrote the character's defining speech, which Lime delivers to Holly while riding the Ferris wheel in the center of Vienna, concluding his callous justification for his mercenary crimes with the most memorable lines of the movie: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly." Greene gave Welles credit for the speech in the published screenplay.

The Ferris wheel scene proved impossible to get on location and was shot against background plates in the studio in London, but the film was largely shot in Vienna. Cinematographer Robert Krasner transformed the once thriving European cultural center almost reduced to rubble after World War II into a Euro-noir city of criminals and spies with bold shadows, dramatically titled angles, and the play of light on the wet cobblestone streets ("it cost a good deal to hose them down constantly," recalls Reed). They make provocative use of Vienna and create a wry snapshot of the early Cold War tensions within the complexities of the international occupation of a city divided into four separate military sectors and checkpoints zealously run by the respective occupying Allied powers. Even diplomatic allies like Britain and America come off more like competitors for control of the city.

Many people still believe that Welles was providing Reed with ideas, if not actually co-directing the film, despite the fact that Reed and Krasner had shot weeks of footage before Welles even arrived on the set. It's not hard to understand why: The striking visual style, the overlapping dialogue, the jagged editing, all of it recalls the expressionist style of "Citizen Kane," but Welles denies any involvement in the direction. "It was Carol's picture," he maintains, claiming only a "rather minor contribution."

And then there is the film's defining score. Reed has said that he "discovered" zither virtuoso Anton Karas playing for tips in a wine bar (another version has him in a beer and sausage restaurant). The director was immediately enchanted by the unique, yet so typically Viennese, sound and decided to score the entire film with a single instrument and brought Karas to London to compose and record the score. The music has a lighthearted lilt with a hint of irony and gives the film a distinctive sound. The success of both the film and the best-selling recording of the theme song created a boom in zither music and reportedly made Karas a rich man.

David Selznick cut the film by some 11 minutes for American release, and replaced the original narration (spoken by director Carol Reed himself) with a new voice-over spoken by Cotten. Criterion's two-disc edition features the complete, 104-minute international edition of the film, just as its previous single-disc edition did. The supplements from that first DVD release, including an introduction by writer-director Peter Bogdanovich, an abridged audio recording of Graham Greene's "Third Man" treatment read by actor Richard Clarke, the alternate opening voice-over by Cotten, and two radio shows -- "A Ticket to Tangiers" from the 1951 broadcast of "The Lives of Harry Lime" series, written and performed by Orson Welles, and the complete 1951 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of "The Third Man" featuring Joseph Cotten – are also in this new edition.

In addition to a new high definition digital transfer, the new edition also includes two commentary tracks (one by the always interesting Steven Soderberg with screenwriter Tony Gilroy, providing a filmmaker's take on the film, and the other by film scholar Dana Polan), the interesting feature length documentary Shadowing the Third Man by director Frederick Baker (who resorts to an annoying technique of projecting extended film clips on sewer grates and cobblestone curbs and other objects), the hour-long Graham Greene: The Hunted Man episode of the British documentary series Omnibus from 1968, and the 30-minute Who Was The Third Man, an Austrian TV documentary that revisits the locations and includes German-dubbed clips of the film.

For more information about The Third Man, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Third Man, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker