Author Graham Greene had only a kernel of an idea for his novel when he approached, Hungarian-born film producer, Alexander Korda with his pitch for what would ultimately become, The Third Man (1949); arguably, the greatest post-war thriller ever made. Greene’s premise was deceptively simple: a young unemployed man arrives in a foreign city on the advice of a close friend who has promised him a job, only to discover the friend has since died by mysterious circumstances. Ever-loyal to his fallen comrade, the man decides to take up the investigation as an amateur sleuth. Korda liked the pitch – at least, enough to afford Greene a hundred thousand pounds to go off and explore the possibilities. What Greene did instead was to troll the seedy underworld of post-war Vienna, hitting some of its more celebrated strip clubs; the Casanova Revueclub, a favorite where Greene would eventually take director, Carol Reed, his second unit director, Guy Hamilton and continuity assistant, Angela Allen to exorcise his own Catholic guilt.
In retrospect, The Third Man is quite possibly the only post-war movie to show Vienna as that legitimately sad, cash-strapped and gloomy derelict it had become since Hitler’s blitzkrieg; the film’s pièce de résistance, an exhilarating chase within the city’s 4,660 miles of subterranean aqua-ducts, dumping raw sewage into the Blue Danube. Over the decades, the sewers have dubiously played host to a series of unsolved murders and a host of guided tours – the perfect place to dump a body or brush up on some rarely seen movie-land history. But never before or since would these underground tributaries host such a harrowing midnight chase as in The Third Man; Reed, employing Vienna’s professional police patrol as substitutes for Major Calloway’s advancing soldiers. Above ground, Reed and cinematographer, Robert Krasker photographed a luminously deteriorating inner city landscape, hosed down nightly and evocatively lit to add an unsettling glimmer to the wounded building facades. While The Third Man was a smash hit around the world, receiving accolades in virtually every city that it played, the Viennese critics were extremely harsh with their criticisms; labeling the movie ‘Chicago in Vienna’ (an obvious nod to Al Capone), while comparing Reed’s observations on their black market trade as casting a pall on the entire populace, marked as a den of thieves.
Ironically, one of The Third Man’s chief assets, director/actor, Orson Welles, also proved a challenging hurdle for director, Carol Reed to overcome. Attempting to renegotiate his fee for what would basically amount to little more than two weeks work (and for which Welles was eventually paid a whopping $100,000), Welles deliberately made himself unavailable to meet the start date, bribing the telephone operator at his hotel to repeatedly lie for him, that he was out, indisposed or otherwise unable to come to the phone; forcing Reed to come up with ingenious ways of shooting around his absence. At intervals, the shadowy figure briefly witnessed running along Vienna’s tight and rain-soaked thoroughfares and byways was actually second unit director, Guy Hamilton, padded out in a large fedora and overcoat; Welles later doubled (except for close-ups shot in Shepperton Studios back in England) by a butcher cum film extra, Otto Schusser for the scenes within the sewer system during the climactic chase, after Welles complained to Reed about the formidable stench and refused to even entertain the notion of shooting down there. For the penultimate moment in Harry Lime’s attempted escape, the pair of frantic fingers desperately peeking through the grate of a manhole cover actually belonged to the director.
The other thorn in Carol Reed’s side was The Third Man’s co-producer, David O. Selznick. Selznick today gets a rather bad rap for being a meddlesome influence on virtually all the movies made under his auspices, suffering from verbal diarrhea; assaulting his cast and crew with a barrage of lengthy memos it took three secretaries working around the clock to transcribe at his behest. Yet, lest we forget Selznick in his prime was responsible for some of the paramount artistic achievements to ever come out of Hollywood; the greatest of them all, arguably, Gone With The Wind (1939). Alexander Korda and Selznick had teamed to make The Third Man, mostly because Korda wanted access to two great stars under exclusive contract to Selznick; Joseph Cotten - the lanky and handsome Virginian with a congenial acting style - and relative newcomer, Alida Valli – her name shortened simply to Valli by Selznick (as he presumably saw her in the vein of the next Greta Garbo), whom Selznick had voraciously vowed to remake as the future Ingrid Bergman (another early discovery for which Selznick took sole credit). Selznick wanted Valli’s presence in The Third Man to herald that of a bona fide movie star and Hollywood glamor girl. Hence, he beseeched Carol Reed to have her bedecked and bedazzled in a series of glamorous gowns. Reed, however, fought Selznick on this point – and won the battle, thanks to Korda. Selznick and Korda, who were hardly close at the start of the making of The Third Man, would eventually come to heated disagreements, causing a permanent rift in their professional relationship.
In hindsight, The Third Man can really only be considered as a work of extraordinary genius; its international roster of creatives toiling (and feuding) behind the scenes, as well as its varied cast in front of the camera, adding to an extraordinary sense of verisimilitude. If Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) had been the embodiment of Hollywood’s misguided mid-wartime romanticism, then The Third Man, made a scant three years after the hellish aftermaths at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, surely became emblematic of the post-war moral ambiguity infecting the world in general and Vienna’s proud culture in particular, its people transformed into a rabble of desperate scavengers, scouring their crumbled paradise for mere crusts of bread, just to keep body and soul together. As Vienna slowly began to revive itself, an even more insidious specter reared its ugly head; the black market. Indeed, when Greene began writing his novel he was introduced to the concept of a real-life penicillin scam that had ravaged the sick and dying with a fate worse than death; complete disfigurement, paralysis, and slow, horrendous insanity and death brought on from injecting the watered down drug, stolen from nearby army hospitals by racketeers and used by unsuspecting doctors to treat their patients.
In scouting locations, second unit director, Guy Hamilton encountered initial resistance from residents and the local government alike. As far as the government was concerned, the technical and electrical requirements of a film crew would strain the city’s already tenuous power grid. To this assumption, Hamilton pointed out The Third Man’s lights and cameras would be powered by their own imported generators. But residents were quelled in their overt skepticism of a Hollywood-ized movie being made in their midst only after Hamilton stumbled upon the idea of promoting supporting actor, Paul Hörbiger (cast as Karl, the porter) as one of the film’s stars; one of only three names that meant anything to the locals (the other two being Hedwig Bleibtreu (cast as Anna’s caustic landlady) and Annie Rosar (as Karl’s wife). From 1928 onward, Hörbiger had been Vienna’s most cherished stars, appearing in more than 250 movies. To say he was beloved by the Viennese is an understatement. Alas, he could not speak a word of English and had to learn all of his lines for The Third Man phonetically; nevertheless, and quite convincingly miming his dialogue.
In preparing The Third Man, Alexander Korda turned to an old friend, Karl Hartl. Unlike Korda (who fled the Nazis during the occupation), Hartl had chosen to remain behind, becoming a Viennese director under their auspices. Interestingly, Hartl’s career survived the war and any defamation for being associated with Hitler’s sponsorship. At war’s end, Hartl was, in fact, hailed for rejuvenating Vienna’s film-making. Also proving imperishable was Hartl’s friendship with Korda, enough for Hartl to throw a welcoming party for Korda’s film company in Vienna, at which time Korda became smitten with Anton Karas, a little known tavern entertainer, playing a mysterious musical instrument in the corner of the room. Making his inquiries, Korda quickly learned the apparatus was, in fact, a zither. Locking Karas away in his hotel suite, the doors and windows padded with mattresses, pillows and sheets to blot out extemporaneous sounds, Korda placed a microphone and primitive tape-recording device in front of Karas into which hours and hours of ‘sample music’ were recorded. Korda was enthralled by the results, although upon hearing these tapes, Selznick would have preferred a full orchestral underscore performed by the London Symphony in its stead. Undaunted, Korda ordered Karas to compose music for The Third Man. For Karas, who neither read nor composed music, the resultant Harry Lime Theme he created and performed for the movie (along with all other music cues), later professionally recorded on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios, stirred an international mania for zither music. It would also net Karas acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and make the unprepossessing performer an instant millionaire, affording Karas the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream – to own a nightclub.
As production wrapped up in Vienna, with a few interiors to be shot at Shepperton Studios in England, The Third Man was about to touch off a powder keg between two film-making giants. Carol Reed had nearly edited the entire picture when an impromptu fire in the processing lab literally incinerated all his fine efforts. With mere weeks remaining in which to meet the deadline for the movie’s European premiere, Reed was forced to begin anew, working from the original camera negative. He was ably abetted in this Herculean effort by Benzedrine, Selznick’s drug of choice for managing the impossibilities of pulling off a 23hr. work day without taking a break until Sundays, at which time it usually took several heavy sedatives to knock him out for almost 24hrs., only to begin the entire process again the following Monday. Meanwhile, Selznick had negotiated exclusive rights to distribute The Third Man in the U.S., thereby excluding Alexander Korda from partaking in the profits. When The Third Man proved to be a runaway success in Europe, Korda realized the error in this hasty decision and refused to send the movie’s original negative to Hollywood so that further prints could be made.
The Third Man opens with credits played over Karas’ zither. We hear the Harry Lime Theme, the main titles dissolving into an almost documentarian overview of post-war Vienna; divided into four militarized zones (Russian, French, American and British), director Carol Reed providing his own rather droll opening monologue to set the stage. Selznick was displeased with this and had Reed’s monologue slightly rewritten, redubbing it with Joseph Cotten’s voice for the American premiere. We are introduced to Holly Martins (Cotten), a failed writer of pulp fiction westerns who has come to Vienna at the behest of an old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles, unseen in all but less than fifteen minutes of actual screen time, most of his scenes situated at the end of the picture). In fact, Reed had had some initial difficulty convincing Welles to play the part of this unscrupulous racketeer until the director pointed out its ‘Mr. Woo’ quality to Welles. Mr. Woo had been a famous character in a Broadway play Welles had seen many years before; the actor playing the part only glimpsed at the end of the performance, but incessantly referenced throughout the play by the other characters on stage; thereby building up the part to resemble a far meatier role than it actually was, but leaving everyone to discuss it ad nauseam after the houselights had come up.
Holly eventually arrives at Harry’s apartment building, only to be informed by the porter (Paul Hörbiger) that Lime has died; his friends gathering only moments earlier to go to the cemetery for the burial. Holly goes to the grave site to see for himself what has become of his old friend. There, he sees a motley crew of mourners gathered around a headstone with Lime’s name on it; Baron' Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto) mildly alarmed to find this stranger in their midst. Also among the funeral-goers is Anna Schmidt (Valli), Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his second in command, Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee). Never one to overlook a pretty face, Holly is immediately struck by Anna’s strange beauty. He is dissuaded from pursuing the matter further by Calloway’s offer of a ride back into town; Calloway wasting no time taking advantage of Holly’s grief, getting him quietly drunk at a local bar in order to glean information about his association with Harry Lime. When Calloway suggests Lime was one of the worst racketeers in Vienna, Holly attempts to defend his fallen friend’s honor. He is momentarily subdued by Paine, but given vital funds by Calloway to remain overnight at the Hotel Sacher, the British military fund also affording Holly enough cash to go back home to America.
Believing foul play was involved in Harry’s untimely demise – described as a benign car accident on the street just outside his apartment – with the presence of a ‘third man’ whose identity cannot be substantiated, Holly elects instead to remain in Vienna a while longer and research the case for himself. In this, he encounters a bit of luck from Crabbin (Wilfrid Hyde-White), a rather spurious cultural attaché, hoping to convince Holly to give a lecture about the American novel to his colleagues by the end of the week. As Holly’s investigation continues he is met by Baron Kurtz at the Mozart Café. Kurtz is really only interested to know how much Holly knows about what has happened to Harry. But Holly is not as naïve as all that, baiting the Baron to take him on a step-by-step walking tour of the crime scene where Harry supposedly met his untimely fate. Listening from the second story window, the Porter begs to differ with Kurtz’s account of the ‘accident’; his wife hurriedly calling him away on the pretext he has a very important phone call to make. Before ending their conversation, Kurtz had leaked out information about a third man who helped carry Harry’s body from the street – a Hungarian named Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), reported to have since left Vienna for his homeland.
Holly tracks down Anna Schmidt and after attending a performance at the theater, in which she plays a winsome extra, he discovers the real Anna to be a more sober-minded and forlorn woman of substance. Moreover, she truly loved Harry, although she denies it to Holly. He promises to get to the bottom of things, the two returning to Harry’s apartment; let in by the Porter to search for clues. Holly challenges the Porter on the discrepancies between his and Kurtz’s accounts of Harry’s death; the Porter growing nervous and angry, ordering Holly and Anna from the room. Holly meets Popescu at the Casanova Club; the wily Hungarian remaining very cryptic about his involvement. However, in investigating the matter further, Holly recognizes the Baron’s dog at Dr. Winkel’s home and suspects these two are conspiring in a diabolical cover-up. A short while later, Holly returns to Harry’s apartment with Anna, only to be accused of the Porter’s murder by his very young son (Herbert Halbik) who saw Holly bickering with his father earlier in Harry’s apartment. Fleeing an angry mob, Holly is taken by a chauffeur-driven car through a harrowing trek down Vienna’s moodily lit streets, ending up at the book-review conference Cribbin arranged earlier. Unprepared to deliver even a competent dissertation on the American novel, Holly quickly loses face with the crowd gathered to hear his lecture. However, a very different and threatening Popescu now emerges from the crowd to sinisterly inquire whether Holly is working on a new book. When Holly pretends he just might be, Popescu cryptically warns him to keep his distance.
Sometime later, Anna and Holly return to her apartment, only to be confronted by Anna’s landlady (Hedwig Bleibtreu), under siege from the international police presently tearing apart Anna’s bedroom in search of her forged passport. Calloway is marginally sympathetic. As a Czech exile living in Vienna under false pretenses, Anna will surely be claimed by the Russians and sent back to her homeland or worse. Holly begs Calloway to do something to stave off the inevitable. Calloway callously reveals to Holly that Harry Lime was involved in dealing black market penicillin, since resulting in hundreds of slow and painful deaths. Holly refuses to believe it. Unable to rid himself of this nagging reality, Holly now gets quietly drunk, chasing after a shadow in the streets and coming face to face with none other than Harry Lime who is alive and well, having faked his own death. After Harry disappears into the night without a trace, Holly goes to Baron Kurtz’s apartment where he also discovers Dr. Winkel.
Realizing these two are in cahoots with Harry, probably hiding him upstairs at this very minute, Holly orders Kurtz to send Harry out to the bombed out remnants of the Prater Amusement Park across the street for a little tête-à-tête. In the resultant conversation, mostly taking place inside a Ferris wheel car, Harry discloses an unusually cynical contempt for humanity. This sickens Holly to his core. When Holly reveals he has already made Calloway and Paine aware of the fact Harry faked his own death, Harry briefly entertains the idea of doing away with Holly by tossing him from the car. Holly calls Harry’s bluff, leading into the one speech Orson Welles actually wrote for his character. In the intervening decades, Welles would profess in interviews, with varying degrees of embellishment, to having been the sole architect of his performance in the film or, at the very least, the exclusive writer of his character’s dialogue. In fact, neither is true. But Welles did contribute his inimitable spark of brilliance to a bit of prose during this Ferris Wheel confrontation, as Harry tries to convince Holly of the futility in caring about what happens to total strangers. “Don't be so gloomy,” Harry explains, “After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, 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 - 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!”
Holly agrees to help Calloway catch Harry. However, later he backs out of this commitment when Anna chides him for betraying a lifelong friendship. Holly is in love with Anna by now, and gravely concerned what will become of her once the Russians figure out her passport is a forgery. Electing to leave Vienna with his disillusionment about Harry unresolved, Holly is instead driven by Calloway to a hospital where some of the children Lime’s poisonous penicillin has maimed and/or crippled are waiting to die. Director, Carol Reed gives us a profoundly sobering substitute for all the hellish sites Holly is presumably forced to witness at the hospital: a single tattered Teddy Bear being removed by a nurse from the crib of a child who has died, callously tossed into a trunk full of toys, presumably taken from other victims’ bedsides. Holly decides then and there to help Calloway apprehend Harry at all costs. He sets up Anna, securing her a passport to escape Vienna aboard a train; a deal made in trade for Holly agreeing to help Calloway lure Harry out of hiding.
Anna figures out the ruse ahead of time, misses her train; then, tries to warn Harry of the set-up. With no time to plan his getaway, Harry hurries to the sewers, pursued by Calloway, Holly, Paine and a small army of police. After some cloak and dagger beneath the city, Paine is shot by Harry and Holly, picking up the Paine’s discarded revolver, wounds Harry in the leg. In attempting his escape to the surface, Harry and Holly come face to face for the last time; Harry nodding his acceptance in defeat and hinting Holly should take his life rather than face incarceration for his sins. In the original screenplay, a bit of exchanged dialogue between Calloway and Holly was to have followed; Holly confessing “I couldn’t stand his pain any longer” adding to being unable to shed himself of the responsibility for Harry’s mercy killing. Carol Reed wisely assessed that the moment required no further exposition to ‘gild the lily’ and omitted this brief exchange from his final edit. At Lime’s legitimate funeral, a virtual repeat of the burial that began our story, Calloway ushers Holly into his car and drives for the airport. The two pass Anna along the roadside, Holly urging Calloway to stop the car ahead of her so their reconciliation can occur. Calloway reluctantly leaves Holly to wait for Anna along the open road. But she cannot forgive him his betrayal of the man they both once loved. She passes Holly and walks on ahead without even acknowledging him.
The Third Man is a veritable potpourri of finely distinguished moments, virtually all of them superbly photographed in B&W by Robert Krasker, his camera perpetually askew to add a sense of visual disquiet to the unraveling story line. When Selznick pre-screened Carol Reed’s cut in America he was not at all pleased, electing to edit out eleven minutes, most of them showing Joseph Cotten’s character in what Selznick would reconsidered a most unflattering light. In point of fact, Holly Martins is a somewhat weak and ineffectual ‘hero’; indecisive about doing ‘the right thing’ because of his lifelong friendship with the accused. Selznick believed this indecisiveness was unbecoming of a star, much less a leading man in a major motion picture. It also came under scrutiny with the then reigning protocol of Hollywood’s screen censorship. Thus, scenes depicting Holly’s drunkenness, as well as his internal struggle leading up to his eventual decision to help Calloway, were foreshortened or cut out altogether to bludgeon the effect. Even with Selznick’s tinkering, The Third Man proved as big a success in America as it had been all over Europe. It easily took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was Oscar-nominated for Best Director (though ironically, not Best Picture) in the U.S. – its only win, for Krasker’s outstanding B&W cinematography.
Alas, awards are a poor judge of enduring greatness in cinema art. That The Third Man has lasted for more than half a century since its release is the more definitive proof of its expert craftsmanship both in front of and behind the camera. Moreover, to date, The Third Man continues to play twice a week inside the theater where it had its Viennese premiere in 1949. And despite Selznick’s mismanaged marketing campaign in America, where it was billed as the ‘first great motion picture of 1950’ but pre-sold to audiences as a war-time romanticized weepy, The Third Man nevertheless managed to garner praise and draw an audience on its own merits as an astutely cynical commentary about post-war Europe; deprived of its schmaltz and strudels and shown for the unflattering, decimated human tragedy that had befallen it and would remain so for some years yet to follow. Viewed today, the potency in Reed’s acidic realization of Graham Greene’s novel is perhaps one of the very best literary adaptations of any book made into a movie.
In altering the ending (in Greene’s book, Anna elects to walk off with Holly), Reed fed into a more somber reality, faithful to the relationships between Holly and Anna, and, Anna, in her enduringly dead passion for Harry Lime – left twice to grieve for the deceased. The imperfectness of this final bittersweet farewell to two men who have meant a great deal to Anna registers a world-weary contempt for the war itself and, in the final analysis, lends The Third Man an incredibly satisfying proviso, worthy of its moniker, as the greatest post-war thriller yet made. Will there be a more worthy contender for this honor in the future. Who can say? But for now, The Third Man is decidedly worthy of all the undulated praise heaped upon its reputation since 1949. It is the perfect ‘imperfect’ movie; exquisitely bottling and expressing post-war torment, remorse and disparagements heaped upon the absurdities of life.
StudioCanal has gone back to the drawing board for a brand new 4K scan of The Third Man in hi-def. Initially, Criterion Home Video released The Third Man on Blu-ray in North America. After this release fell out of print, StudioCanal snatched up the rights to reissue Criterion’s 1080p transfer under their own banner with different extra features, minus a lot of extra content, but alas, sporting the same marginally flawed digital files used to remaster the film. This brand new 4K offering is region free, and, at least so far, exclusively available in Europe. Mercifully, we are able to import it on this side of the Atlantic via Amazon.com. The improvements are subtle but cumulatively result in a far more pleasing visual presentation than either of the two aforementioned outings on Blu-ray. Prepare to be amazed with these results: greater depth and a more nuanced grayscale with immaculate tonality and contrast. Shadow definition takes a quantum leap forward, showing off the nighttime footage to pristine effect. There remains some extremely mild unevenness between fades, cuts and dissolves but the persistent flicker and light warping, present in all previous home video incarnations, has been eradicated from this presentation. Gone too is all age-related damage: debris, torn frames and water marks. The audio has likewise been given a new clean-up, removing the subtle hiss and pop present before and revealing a subtler clarity that will surely satisfy. The results: a flawless, reference-grade disc to be snatched up immediately by collectors and film lovers alike and worshiped forever thereafter.
Extras have all been ported over from previous editions, including an audio commentary, famous fan featurette, and, new featurette on the restoration of the movie. StudioCanal has also taken the time to secure the rights to ‘Shadowing The Third Man’ – a 90min. documentary that was a part of the Criterion release but never made the leap over to the first StudioCanal Blu-ray. Featurettes on the zither, audio interviews with Joseph Cotten and Grahame Greene, Cotten’s alternate opening monologue for the American release, and The Third Man radio broadcast are also included for your viewing enjoyment. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)