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All The Facts & Trivia
Graham Greene spent two weeks scouting round the city of Vienna for ideas. He was shown the large web of underground sewers and heard tales of racketeering in stolen penicillin that made his hair stand on end. Gradually the story took shape, but it was a far cry from the satirical jollities of the director Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich.
It followed the experiences of an American writer of cowboy novels called Holly Martins, who travels to Europe at the invitation of his old chum Harry Lime. When Martins arrives he discovers that Lime has been killed. Attending the funeral, he is approached by a British Army officer, Galloway, who shocks an already dazed Martins by telling him that Lime was a ruthless racketeer who deserved to die.
Martins does not believe him and decides to remain in Vienna to prove his friend's innocence, but the deeper he digs the more he realizes that Galloway has told the truth - Lime was a drug trafficker. Of course, he isn't dead. Someone else's body occupies his coffin, and it's a simple guess who put it there. But it is not the trade itself which turns Martins against him, it is the human tragedies that result from Lime's cynical dilution of the drugs. Martins agrees to help Calloway, and the climax is played out in the cavernous sewer tunnels beneath the city, with Lime trapped and urging Martins to finish him off, which he does.
By midsummer 1948 the script was ready, and Alexander Korda, who had
agreed to produce it, roped in the influential Hollywood producer
David O. Selznick to handle the US distribution. The original stars
were going to be Gary Grant as Martins and Noel Coward as Lime,
but Grant's insistence on too large a fee and Reed's opposition to
Coward caused a rethink. Film buffs are grateful that it did. Reed
dined in London with Orson Welles, who showed interest in playing
Harry Lime but who would not commit himself. He was halfway
through making Othello but had run into serious financial problems.
Welles spent most of the evening puzzling aloud how he could save
his project. With less than half a promise from Welles, Reed flew to
Hollywood to consult Selznick and inferred during their conversation
that Welles was sold on the idea. This secured Selznick's agreement.
The American mogul also proposed Joseph Cotten to play Martins,
and to play Lime's love interest, the central female role in the film,
he suggested the Italian actress Alida Valli - both of whom Selznick
had under contract. Reed approved his casting choices without a
murmur and returned to England in a jubilant mood.
Welles and Cotten were old friends, having worked together in Welles's Mercury Theater Company before the war. It was Welles who brought Cotten to Hollywood to co-star with him in Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1946). Cotten and Welles created electricity together on the screen, but Selznick, who knew both men well, had hinted to Reed that they might prove to be a handful; he thought they might misbehave and make up their own dialogue. But Reed was a contented man as he made the return flight to London. Not only had he the best actor that he could think of to play Martins, he sensed that Cotten was the perfect bait to finally land Welles, and this proved to be the case.
There was a huge sense of anticipation among the cast and crew on the day Welles was scheduled to arrive in Vienna. He was a big man in every sense of the word-independent-minded, multi-talented, buoyant, bullish and a great story-teller. It was inevitably Welles's film, although his entrance is delayed until an hour into the action. That hour supplied him with a magnificent build-up - the other characters spend most of it talking about him. His presence is everywhere, long before that first, tantalizing glimpse of him standing in a doorway at night, lit only long enough for us to see the mocking grin; and, after all the speculation and the background music hinting at a shock to come, finally there he is, smug and sleek, well fed, immaculately dressed in the deserted streets of starving Vienna. It is a dazzling moment which, no matter how often you see the film, never loses its power.
Trevor Howard was Reed's first and only choice to play Calloway, and to give the character additional gravitas, to make him look more like a high-ranking officer, it was suggested that he grow a moustache. The contrast between Lime, the master criminal who uses charm like a scalpel, and Calloway, his blunt, methodical nemesis, is memorably achieved by both actors. Even physically their contrasts appear striking - the stocky, swaggering Lime and the hunched, sober Calloway. Howard was in superb form. He lets you see how badly he hates Lime, but the hatred is inside him. On the surface he gives nothing away. That is acting of a high order.
Welles was full of admiration for the largely British crew, declaring them the best he had known. Selznick's initial fears that he and Cotten might hijack the film, or, at least, play around with parts of it, came to nothing. The two Americans appeared tamed by the quality of the material, and not once did they query Reed's direction or cause trouble. Welles had a few ideas of his own, but his suggestions were designed to improve, not sabotage, the film. Sometimes they were incorporated, at other times not.
The original concept of the Ferris-wheel sequence, for example,
was modified after Welles and Reed got talking. Although some background shots had been undertaken in Vienna, it proved impossible
- and would have been highly dangerous ------ to mount a camera outside
the Ferris-wheel carriage in which Lime warns Martins against
getting involved with the police. Reed therefore shot the scene in
the studio and back-projected the view the characters would see
during the ride.
Welles suggested that Lime's cruelty behind his charming manner could be brought to the surface with a few additional lines of dialogue. Reed had no objection. Lime worries about the poor children of Vienna being unable to afford to ride on the big wheel, yet he doesn't care that they are dying because of his watered-down drugs. Against that, his complaint about his indigestion - 'I wish I could throw off this thing' - seems self-centred and callous. Welles also added a bitterjoke, a swipe at the US Treasury, which rightly or wrongly he blamed for his financial difficulties on Othello. From the carriage, high in the air, Lime wonders if Martins would object so strongly if he was to get £20,000 for every person, or 'dot', on the ground who stopped breathing - 'Would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money - or would you calculate how many dots you could have? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. It's the only way to save nowadays.'
Welles requested one further script addition, a piece of dialogue to be spoken by Lime at the end of the ride, as he dons his gloves and strides off across the fairground. Lime needs Martins on his side. Calloway is gaining ground, but Martins is the key to his survival. Lime can be caught only if Martins deserts him. So at the end of the ride Lime has to make sure they part as friends, even though he has threatened him. The famous 'cuckoo-clock' speech was Welles's invention to lighten the tension between the two characters. Millions of cinemagoers still joyfully recite the lines from memory.
He thought, however, that for Martins to turn against Lime he would have to be shown something truly stomach-churning. The trick was to show it to Martins without showing the audience. The scene where Calloway takes him on a tour of the children's hospital was added. The shocked expression on his face, and the matter-of-fact discarding of yet another teddy bear into a waste basket, subtly conveys the horror Martins is feeling.
Selznick was unsure about Greene's original ending in which Martins and Anna resolve their differences. He suggested that Anna would never forgive Martins for helping to destroy the man she loved. Her grief for Lime immediately after his funeral would rule out any reconciliation. Reed and Greene were persuaded to change the ending to one in which Anna ignores him after her long walk between the poplar trees. This is another scene cherished by movie buffs.
A few adjustments had to be made to satisfy the censors. They objected to Martins's mercy killing of Lime because only the police were licensed to have guns. Greene was obliged to give Calloway an additional line of dialogue - 'If you see him, shoot!' - which authorized Martins to go after him. Welles filmed a few days in Vienna and a few in London. He wore no make-up and looked no different on the screen from the globe-hopping bon viveur he was in real life.
The script called for Lime to have 'on his face a look of cheerful
rascality'. Welles was born with that look. All that was required of him
was to be himself. Great actor though he was, Welles had no head for
business. He was offered the choice of a straight fee of $100,000 cash
or 20 per cent of the profits, and he chose the money. It was sufficient
to rescue Othello, but it proved to be the worst financial decision of his
life. A percentage of the profits would have netted him a much larger
sum. But Welles had no time to dwell on past mistakes; he was too busy
getting ready for the next one.
Reed made four films with cinematographer Robert Krasker, of which Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man are the most visually striking. In the latter film, his low-angle shots of Vienna after dark, with its deserted, cobbled streets and bomb-damaged buildings, create an atmosphere of silent menace. The sequences filmed in the sewers, with their huge interconnecting tunnels large enough in places for tube trains to pass through, the cascading water and the white-suited guards make the place look awesome and futuristic.
Reed described the thinking behind the camerawork:
'I shot most
of the film with a wide-angle lens that distorted the buildings and
emphasized the wet cobblestone streets which had to be hosed down
constantly while we were filming. The angle of vision was just to suggest
that something crooked was going on.'
Krasker also repeated the technique he had employed in Brief Encounter and in Odd Man Out of tilting the camera to emphasize peaks of tension.
These images were bold enough, memorable enough and were repeated often enough to give Reed the status of an auteur. They became his trademark, although he never acknowledged that he had one. Nevertheless the claustrophobic, expressionist feel of many of Reed's Krasker-shot night sequences contain a distinctive signature.
The tilted camera, however, irritated some film critics. C.A. Lejeune in the Observer described Reed's 'habit of printing his scenes askew, with floors sloping at a diagonal and close-ups deliriously tilted' as 'most distracting'. Even members of his own profession complained that he overdid it. William Wyler, a close friend of Reed's, sent him a spirit level, with a note saying, 'Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?'
Finding the right theme music for The Third Man was not easy,
despite Vienna having been home at one time or other to Mozart,
Schubert, Beethoven and the Strauss family. Reed felt that these
composers were all unsuitable for a modern-day story about narcotics
and betrayal. There are several versions of the tale of how Anton
Karas came to be the composer and soloist on the soundtrack. I am
most familiar with Trevor Howard's version, so that is the one I shall
One night Howard and a friend - he didn't say who - went for a quiet drink in a tiny beer-and-sausage cafe in Sievering, a suburb of Vienna. Anton Karas was strumming the zither, but nobody took any notice of him. The music could scarcely be heard above the chatter of the customers, but, as the night wore on and people started leaving, the zither-playing caught Howard's attention. He loved jazz and the folk music of many countries and was quite taken with the exciting sounds that Karas was creating.
Several nights later he took Reed to the cafe. The director also liked the music, but Karas spoke no English and could not understand the compliments of the two Britons as they left the place at around midnight. Reed had noticed that, as well as sounding soft and romantic and mournful, the zither could produce harsh and vibrant sounds, like the contrasting moods of his film. He revisited the cafe with an interpreter and was told that Karas composed many tunes, some with simple melody lines for playing to customers, others more complicated for his own amusement. Karas agreed to record some of them on a reel-to-reel tape machine that Reed set up in the bedroom of his hotel.
One of them was a piece that Karas had not played for about fifteen years because it was quite complicated. Karas explained, through the interpreter:
'This tune takes a lot out of my fingers. In the cafe nobody
bothers to listen. They like easy tunes, the sort one can hear while at
the same time eat sausages.'
Reed brought the tape to London and played it to Korda, who was impressed by Karas's musicianship. Reed returned the following day to Vienna and invited him to compose and play the score for the film. A recording of the segment played behind the opening credits, called the Harry Lime Theme, was to become a popular hit all over the world.
At the time of its release (in August 1949 in Britain and the following February in the United States) The Third Man attracted mixed
reviews. With some critics it struck an immediate chord. Quentin Crisp
described it as 'the only good picture ever to come out of Britain'.
A.E. Wilson wrote, 'I am inclined to use the word genius sparingly,
but there is no other word that adequately suggests the power, the
thrill, the mystery and the suspense.' Time magazine deemed it 'the
work of a craftsman so skilled that he [Reed] has earned the right to
be judged as an artist'. The New York Daily News called it 'enthralling
... with the quality of a symphonic movement'. The respected
American critic Bosley Crowther viewed it as 'essentially a first-rate
contrivance in the way of melodrama and that's all ... It doesn't
present any message. It hasn't a point of view. It is just a bang-up
melodrama designed to excite and entertain.' Cyril Ray was among
the least impressed. He wrote, 'There is little in the story that would
seem to matter. Whether it was all worth doing with so much care and
talent and wit can only be a minority's murmured query.' Yet, like
good wine and violins, and possibly zithers, The Third Man has
improved with age. Today we are less likely to notice flaws or share
Dilys Powell's 'disappointment'. We feast our senses instead on the
near-perfect performances, particularly from Welles and Howard, the
fluent black-and-white photography, the unusual score and the
compelling narrative, and not for the first time are we driven to ignore
the carping critics.
Because Welles would often disappear from the set to work on another project, Othello, and left before the sewer sequence was finished, assistant director Guy Hamilton stood in for him in many of the shadowy sewer scenes.
And in the shot of Harry Lime reaching for the sewer grating, the hands are, in fact, those of director Carol Reed.
On Friday 5th August 2005, viewers of BBC's Newsnight Review voted the film their 4th most favourite of all time. It was the only film in the top five list that was made before 1970.
Trivia >> Cast & Crew >> Making >> Plot >> Mini Photo-Stills >> The 3rd Man Film Poster Gallery >> Carol Reed >> Graham Greene >> Trevor Howard >> Alexander Korda >> Alida Valli >> Orson Welles >> British Dvd War Collection >> Advertise >> 3rd Man Dvds available @ amazon.com