It may be a cliche to say that film is a collaborative art, but in the case of The Third Man
(1949), the term is particularly apt. The movie was launched by not one, but two, strong-willed moguls; it was written by a celebrated novelist/screenwriter/raconteur; its director was riding a streak of successes; and the actor playing the title role was a notorious multi-hyphenate in his own right. The egos involved were massive, in other words, and there was no doubt a bit of luck involved in the fact that the resulting movie not only thrived on this energy - it became something much greater than any one of the major players involved imagined.
Sir Alexander Korda presided over his London Films Productions and was known as the leading film producer in Europe. As such, he had offices both in England and in various countries around the Continent. World War II had brought distribution to a halt throughout most of Korda's European territories, so after the war he took stock of the situation. Due to post-war currency controls, he found that he had to keep some profits from foreign distribution from leaving those countries. To solve this problem, he began to shift some of his production into these countries as well. On a visit to Vienna, Austria he observed the unique five-part Allied occupation of the city and determined that the setting would be ideal for a picture, preferably a thriller.
Meanwhile, British director Carol Reed was on a roll. In 1947 his crime thriller Odd Man Out
had garnered him worldwide attention, and he was presently finishing the film The Fallen Idol
(1948) for Korda's London Films. This movie was based on the story "The Lost Illusion" by the celebrated British author Graham Greene, who had also written the screenplay. Upon its release, this film would also reap worldwide praise. Korda had an agreement for American distribution with mega-mogul David O. Selznick and his Selznick Releasing Organization. The Fallen Idol
also did very well at the U.S. box office. Reed and Greene were ready to collaborate again, and were anxious to lighten the mood with a comedy-thriller.
Greene would later say that Korda made the request that Greene devise a story to take place in post-war Vienna, so Greene pulled out the intriguing opening line of a story he had filed away several years before: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.' Other accounts indicate that Greene actually had the story more or less worked out, and that he and Reed approached Korda, who then suggested the Vienna setting. At any rate, Greene checked into a hotel in Vienna in February 1948 on Korda's tab and spent two weeks there in writing and research. Here he no doubt discovered the intricacies of the divided sectors of the city, the black markets that flourished, the ways in which the inhabitants maneuvered through the bombed-out rubble and bargained for goods and services, and perhaps most famously, the way the sewer system beneath the city was patrolled by a special police detail. Greene went on to Italy and finished writing his novella, The Third Man
Greene's novella was published in 1950, after the release of the film, but it could more properly be called a film treatment. Greene himself admitted that the movie was superior, writing in his introduction that the novella "...was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The film is...the finished state of the story." The screenplay was written in tighter collaboration with director Reed.
Korda and Selznick entered into further negotiations in May of 1948 to launch co-production deals to circumvent the British governments' Anglo-American Film Agreement, which restricted the revenues which could be converted from the box-office to American film studios. Korda also welcomed the chance to bring an American flavor to his films to increase their earning potential in that country. The first film in this agreement was to be The Third Man
, which now would also feature a partial American cast. Along with the deal, for better or worse, would be the creative input of David O. Selznick, who was notorious for being a hands-on micromanager of projects. The vast number of memos and directions that sprang from his dictation on productions such as Gone with the Wind
(1945), and Duel in the Sun
(1946) were already well known and legendary in movie-making circles. Selznick saw the script and the criticisms and suggestions began immediately.
Greene and Reed traveled to America for conferences with Selznick for two weeks in August 1948. It was Selznick's idea to open the film with a brief documentary treatment explaining present-day Vienna. Reed approved of this, but virtually every other suggestion by Selznick was ignored. Selznick was primarily concerned about the depiction of the two Americans, one evil, the other a fool. At Selznick's urging, Reed did bring in a writer, Jerome Chodorov, to work uncredited to make the Martins's dialogue more "American.' In typical fashion, Selznick went on to obsess in memo form about costumes (Valli's weren't glamorous enough), the title (he preferred something more prosaic like "A Night in Vienna" or "The Claiming of the Body"), and casting (he desperately wanted Noel Coward for the role of Lime).
Selznick's most important contribution was the loan of two of his contract players, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, for the leads. Ironically, Reed himself would have preferred James Stewart in the Martins role. With Welles and Cotten now cast, however, it seemed appropriate that the two old friends Lime and Martins were to be played by two actors who were old friends in real life. Principal photography was set to begin in Vienna in October 1948.
by John M. Miller